Youthful Indiscretions

The following story, to the very best of my knowledge, is entirely true, based on information which has been made public over the past couple of months in hearings in the US Senate. The names have been changed, however, to protect the ignorant.


Somewhere between their fourth and fifth beers Ted turns to Bill and says, “Dude, face it: you’ve got a serious problem here. Yeah, you’re really good at writing my history essays for me. Yeah, you can hit hard and take hard hits on the football field. And yeah, you can almost keep up when it comes to drinking. But when it comes to girls you are a total dork.”

Bill is clearly hurt by his friend’s critique. He begins to slur out an answer: “Look, I get along fine with all the girls at St. Joe’s. They all hug me when I come in. They enjoy my company. They laugh at my jokes and they like having me around. I don’t want to f— that up by trying to get into their pants.”

Ted takes another swig and sympathetically goes on, “OK, but face it. Like when Roxy had her kissing booth thing going at the party last week. Everyone goes in for a hug and a kiss, and I admit, I slipped her a fair amount of tongue, I reached a bit low from her back in pulling her close, and she could definitely feel my hard-on. But like, she was totally into it, playing along and grinding right back against me. Then Moose had his turn and you could tell by the look in his eyes that it was all he could do not to come in his pants right there!”

Beer sprayed from Bill’s mouth, and nearly from his nose as he burst out laughing at the idea of the defensive lineman struggling to avoid orgasm. They roared together for a few minutes before Ted went on: “But when it’s your turn you go up and put your hands on her shoulders and kiss her about like I would kiss my grandmother. I mean, come on! What the f—‘s up with that?”

Bill went silent, chugged down the rest of the beer in his can, opened another and sat contemplating. “I don’t know,” he finally said, “It’s not as though I’m worried about offending her or any shit like that. I’ve heard her joke about ‘you can’t rape the willing’ and all. But like, if I tried to score with Roxy and she lets me just because it turns out she’s easy like that, I could never be friends with her again! And if I tried to go for it and she pushed me away it would be even worse! The same goes for all of the girls I hang out with.”

“Yeah, I understand, it’s tough being a clueless virgin. I remember when I was 13…” Ted said with mock sympathy.

“F—you!” Bill came back with a laugh.

They sat in silence for a while before Ted finally went on, “OK, so we’ve got to find a way of getting you laid. I’ve got an idea.”

“Look, hookers are out of the question!” Bill shot back.

“Yeah, I get that,” Ted said, “it just has to be someone other than the girls you hang around with. Young pussy is really the best, but you’ve got to hurry because after you turn 18 it’s off limits!” They exchanged wry smiles before he went on. “So here’s the idea: there’s some folks getting together at Jill’s house tonight. I’ll make some phone calls and see if we can get a girl or two from the club to come over. We’ll loosen one of them up with a few beers and then you can try out your moves to see how far you can get. If she shoots you down, no harm, no foul. You’ll probably never see her again, and she won’t be spreading rumors of what a clumsy dork you are. But if she lets you in, score!”

“Dude, I don’t know,” Bill whined, but they could both tell he was hoping such a thing really could happen.


Cindy was laying in the sun poolside after her regular laps. Her one-piece suit was dry already and some dry strands of her fine blonde hair were starting to pop free from the damp mass that she had pulled back in an unbound ponytail. At 15 her slim body was just starting to take on the sort of womanly curves that she wished to be admired for. The club had lots of good looking guys from rich families hanging around and while she wasn’t exactly hunting for a boyfriend, she certainly didn’t mind having them check her out and smile.

She was basically killing time at this point. Her parents were out for the evening and so she only had microwave food and cable TV to get home to. She had come by bus and she was also sort of hoping to bum a ride home from someone, but most of the other girls she usually swam laps with either didn’t show up today or they had done their workout earlier and left already. As she lay there on her back, with her eyes closed, thinking about what to do next she felt a shadow fall over her. She looked up to see Freddie, the pool boy, standing over her smiling. She smiled back and said, “Hi Freddie. Closing time already?”

“Hi Cindy. You’re looking lovely today,” Freddie began. “Getting close to closing time, but actually I just got a call from Ted Jones. Remember him?”

Cindy nodded, and gave a somewhat contemplative smile. Ted was one of the rich boys at the club who hit on her on occasion. He seemed like a mostly harmless stoner by nature, but she understood that he went to this private Catholic boys’ school, that apparently tried to keep him in line a bit, but ended up just increasing the pressure of his wildness by trying to restrain it; sort of like holding your thumb over the end of a garden hose. She sometimes wondered if all the rich Catholic boys at his school were like that.

Freddie went on, “Well apparently Ted is at this house party a couple miles from here, and he says that a bunch of the people who were supposed to come have bombed out, and so now they have too few people and too much beer. So he was wondering if I could find anyone here to join them. In his words, ‘the cuter, the better.’ He actually mentioned you as one to try to invite. What do you think?”

Cindy considered the idea for a moment. “Anyone else I know there?”

“I think Leah and Bob might be there, but mostly kids Ted knows from the Catholic schools. Anyway, just passing the message as requested, but if you’re interested I could give you a lift over there, and if it looks too stupid for you to be interested then I can bring you straight home from there.”

Another pause before Cindy said, “Yeah, why not? I’ll go have a look.”

“Cool,” said Freddie. “I do have to lock up now, but how about we meet at my car in about 15 minutes? You know, the green Subaru.”

“Sure, fine.” Cindy grabbed her towel and things and headed for the locker room. She spent some time brushing and blow-drying her hair before realizing that Freddie was probably waiting for her already. She quickly pulled her top and jeans on over her swimsuit, tossed her other things in a bag and rushed out to the parking lot.


The house was a non-descript upper middle-class suburban colonial — a cookie cutter design for particularly upwardly mobile cookies. Leah and Bob were indeed there, together with a little less than a dozen more vaguely familiar kids. Leah gave Cindy a big hug and handed her a beer as she arrived. Cindy took a sip and nodded to Freddie that this would be OK with her. He smiled and waved goodbye, and was on his way.

Maybe 10 minutes later Ted (literally) stumbled in from somewhere, with this other tall, handsome but even more drunk friend in tow. “Cindy!” Ted exclaimed. He rushed forward and grabbed her into a bear hug, rocking from right foot to left as he gave a satisfied, “Mmmmmm!” Cindy had to laugh.

Ted then broke the hug and turned to his comrade in inebriation: “Cindy, I want you to meet my dear friend Bill. Bill, this is Cindy from the country club.” He gave Bill a subtle wink before turning back to Cindy to say, “When he’s sober, Bill is the smartest and most Catholic guy at Georgetown!” Bill and Cindy smiled and shook hands. In a weak romantic gesture Bill pulled Cindy’s hand up and kissed her knuckles. That deepened Cindy’s smile and made her blush a bit.

Ted patted Bill on the back and excused himself to use the toilet. When he came back he found the two in the sort of innocent conversation he had sort expected. Bill was slurring a bit, but he seemingly had intelligent things to say still about Fleetwood Mac, Wizards basketball and movies starring members of the original cast of SNL. Time for a bit of coaching. Ted grabbed Bill by the arm and said to Cindy, “Excuse me. I need to borrow him for just a minute.” He then steered Bill out onto the back porch. They looked in through the sliding glass door as Cindy joined a group of kids dancing to some Michael Jackson tune.

“So what do you think?” Ted asked.

“She’s definitely cute, and she seems like she’s pretty smart too,” Bill answered.

“Yeah, I’m sure she’s gonna win a Nobel Prize in something someday, but that’s not the point. Does she get you hard?”

“Do you have to be so crude about it?” Bill asked a bit defensively.

With the demeanor of a stern teacher Ted looked him in the eye and said, “If we’re ever going to get you laid, in a word, f— yeah!” That was two words, but Bill decided not to point it out. He said nothing, just looked at his de facto coach in depravity expectantly for his next round of instructions. Eventually they came: “It looks like if I set you up alone with her in a room here you’d just sit there and talk about music and shit with her until it’s time to go home. So, awkward as it might be, for this project to go anywhere I’m going to have to come along. I’m doing this all for your own good though, so try and stay with me and follow my hints.”

Cindy smiled as they came back in and walked up to her on the dance floor. Ted smiled, put his hand on her shoulder and said in her ear to be heard over the music, “Cin, there’s something Bill and I need to ask you about. Can you come upstairs for a moment, where it’s quiet enough to hear each other?” Cindy was a little apprehensive, but she smiled and nodded. The three of them went up the stairs together. There was one couple making out half way up the stairs that they needed to push past, but it didn’t break the couple’s concentration. They stepped into an empty bedroom across from the bathroom and Ted closed the door.

Bill was clearly nervous as he polished off yet another beer which he had in his hand. Cindy was not sure how scared she should be at this point. Then Ted spoke: “So Cindy here’s the thing: you’ve seen me at the country club with Mary and Sue and Anne and some of the other girls I’ve dated, so you know that I do pretty well for myself in those regards; but  poor Bill here has never actually had a girlfriend. And it’s not as though he’s gay or anything. He’s really interested in girls; he just doesn’t know how to make a girl interested in him. So first, as a girl, do you see anything obviously wrong with him that would explain his problem?”

Bill was blushing a bit, and had a confused air of not being sure whether to laugh or tell Ted to f—himself or both. Cindy answered honestly: “No, he’s actually a nice looking guy, and when he’s sober I’m sure he’s quite charming to talk with.”

“Well, to be honest with you I had to get him drunk to get him over his shyness,” Ted went on. “But maybe you could help me help him with that. Would you mind if he were to kiss you?”

Cindy looked at Bill somewhat apprehensively. Should she take a chance with such? He was obviously painfully shy and probably at least as innocent as she was. Maybe a quick kiss, with Ted sort of chaperoning them, and then back to the party downstairs, would be safe enough, and the best strategy overall. “Oh OK,” she said.

Bill walked up to her and put his left hand around her waist to pull her closer. She could smell both the extreme nervousness and drunkenness on his breath. At first his lips barely touched hers. Then as he built up his courage he began sucking on her upper lip slightly. Ted began laughing hysterically behind them. “Oh come on! I know you can do better than that!” he bellowed. Then suddenly Ted pushed Bill hard toward her and she fell backwards onto the bed with Bill on top of her. In that position Bill suddenly started going wild. He reached his right hand between them and grabbed her tender breast as he mashed his mouth against hers much more aggressively. Now she was seriously scared. She felt his erection grinding against her and she began to flail about trying to get free, but he was far bigger than her and she wasn’t nearly strong enough to push him off. When he finally came up for air she tried to scream, but before the alarm could properly be sounded his left hand was pushed up against her nostrils and covering her mouth. It was hard for her to breathe.

Ted’s laughter was all the while intensifying from the chair where he sat by the far wall. Bill joined into the laughter as he sat up on top of her, continuing to hold her mouth as he fiddled with the buttons of her top. After struggling with them for a while he managed to get enough of them open to see the nylon of her swimsuit. “Oh shit! This isn’t working,” he groaned before changing tactics and moving his free hand down to try to open her jeans. She was then sure he intended to rape her. Her mind was in complete panic mode.

“You f—ing klutz!” she heard Ted say as he rose from the chair and approached the bed. Were they both going to rape her? Yet before she realized what was happening though Ted made a leaping football blocking move to knock Bill off of her. Again the two boys began laughing hysterically as Cindy rolled off the bed onto the floor and raced for the door.

With their victim gone Bill turns to Ted and through tears of laughter says, “Look, I know you meant well, but you really are a total asshole!” This only brought them both into another fit of laughter, after which Bill went on, “The important thing is that you damn well better remember that none of this shit ever really happened!”


Somehow in a traumatized daze Cindy made it home that evening. Somehow she made it through the following school year, and the rest of high school. She continued to struggle with the trauma of that afternoon through her first years of university studies, but eventually she went on to get a degree in psychology and to establish herself as a respected intellectual in that field, all the while holding these deep traumatic scars inside. After her university years she moved to the other side of the country to escape the memories of being pinned under Bill that evening, but it wasn’t far enough.

Ted went on to write commercially successful novels about the depravity of his high school years. Then after his drinking and chemical recreation nearly killed him, he went on to have a religious conversion experience in which he entirely cleaned up his life, but not without some scars of his own from his previous lifestyle.

Bill continued to struggle with the stigma of his awkward virginity well into his university years, and he continued to make drunken, clumsy and at times outright abusive sexual approaches to women even after he finally managed to gain some sexual experience. For a while he became somewhat of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in this regard, until he found a new outlet for his social insecurities and aggressions: politics. He became an aggressive prosecuting lawyer and then a legal advisor to promote the power interests of his peers within the more elite wing of a major political party. In this role his vicious aggression and intellectual pride were able to come together to help him build one of the nation’s most successful careers at the intersection of legal practice and politics. His boyhood interests in truth and integrity became casualties of this process, but if you have enough power and prestige who needs truth and integrity?

Though he never saw her again in person, Cindy’s ghost returned to haunt Bill many times over the years, however. At one point her exposure of his youthful aggressions nearly cost him a major career advancement. This brought him right to the brink of a complete nervous breakdown. His powerful friends have continuously done what they can to protect him from this darkness though, particularly since he has proven so adept at returning that sort of favor in terms of the exercise of power. The final ending of his story remains to be written.


So now, a generation later, what do you think should be done about this situation? Prosecuting “Bill” for sexual assault seems rather impractical and perhaps even unjust at this point, even if his powerful friends would allow it to happen. Ideally something resembling a “truth and reconciliation commission” would be healthiest for all involved, but that could also end up destroying “Bill’s” career. Then again, if “Bill’s” career is significantly based on finding ways to destroy political enemies by dishonest means, would it be such a great loss to  the world for it to come to an ignoble end?

The main thing is to honestly ask, how does that sort of “training” influence the sort of person one turns out to be, and what does it say about a society that such matters do not seriously bother people?

The real problem is not the end result of this political battle; the problem is that there are so many people that find the sort of character that develops by such a path morally acceptable.


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Filed under Empathy, Human Rights, Philosophy, Politics, Sexuality, Social identity

Another Finnish Word Needed in English?

The Finnish language is a legendary intellectual challenge. It is the with roughly six million speakers worldwide it has a relatively small base, but after Hungarian it is the second largest non-Indo-European language in the world to use the Latin alphabet. Yet even compared to Hungarian its vocabulary is notably idiosyncratic and its grammatical structure follows a logic that outsiders can never fully comprehend.


“Kalsarikännit”, American style.

Even so Finnish has its own rugged beauty to it. Last year it caught a significant part of the world’s attention with one of its finely descriptive words for a state that men of the Homer Simpson mold occasionally find themselves in: kalsarikännit – a state of solo drunkenness in which one doesn’t bother to get dressed, thus sitting around the house in one’s briefs. Yes, that is a common enough state of affairs in this country to need a word of its own, but in fairness it is probably more widespread in other cultures than their vocabularies would indicate. So while I am not an active campaigner for the movement, I would support bringing this term into more widespread use in English, particularly in Canada and Australia, but that’s another story.

This year there is a different untranslatable word from Finnish that might need to be adopted in other languages and cultures, though to be honest, I’m not sure that the phenomenon is widespread enough to warrant a word of its own in many other places. Its role in Finnish life even is becoming somewhat questionable. The word I am referring here to sivistys.

To get the pronunciation right think of the first two syllables as the same as those of “civi-lized.” (Finnish people often mistakenly assume that the words are related, but I’ll come to that later.) The letter Y in Finnish is pronounced sort of like the eu in “deuce”. The T in Finnish also has a somewhat softer, d-like pronunciation in Finnish, particularly in the middle of a word. So overall a close enough pronunciation would be “civis-deuce”.

The primary use of this word in everyday Finnish is in reference to non-vocational education. If you are studying to become a plumber, a carpenter, an electrician or a mechanic then you need to attend an “ammattikoulu,” or in short-hand slang, an “amis”. Schools in Finland which are not geared towards such practical considerations are referred to as “yleissivistävä” – in other words providing not so much practical skills, but a general sort of sivistys.

So what is this mysterious sivistys that young people are sent to school to acquire? This is a challenge to work out specifically, but if the rest of the world wants to learn about the wonders of the Finnish school system, frequently rated as the world’s best still, then the goal of sivistys is what they really have to work out.

snellman1It would be easy to assume that this concept is related to the Latin-based word civility, and for a long time working as a school teacher in Finland I assumed this to be the case. Much later I learned that the etymology for this term is based on the old Finnish adjective “siveellinen,” meaning pure, chaste, moral and/or decent. Sivistys as a word was coined by the nineteenth century Germanized Finnish intellectual J.V. Snellman, as a loose rendering of the German concept of bildung, based on what Wilhelm von Humboldt referred to as “a certain cultivation of the mind and character that nobody can afford to be without.”  This in turn refers broadly to the Hegelian concept of continuous improvement brought about through a dialectical process of continuously struggling with opposing viewpoints. This supposedly causes one to develop a certain sort of spirit, in the sense of the German word geist, which is rather different from what “spirituality” is taken to mean these days. It has more to do with rising above that which is crude, base and carnal, toward something more refined.

Introducing a concept along these lines into English has been attempted on a number of occasions, without any notable success. One particular example which comes to mind is the discussion between the characters in Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice over what it might mean to refer to a young lady as particularly “accomplished.”

Perhaps the closest equivalent though would be cultural literacy – a movement in the 1980s started by a fellow name Hirsch who attempted to standardize what counted as core knowledge. The problems with that approach had a fair amount to do with timing: coming out just before the Internet, its laundry list of facts and phenomena that school children should be aware of was effectively out of date before the ink was dry on the first edition. Nor has the speed of change in society slowed down in any significant way since then; on the contrary, if anything the pace of change has been speeding up. Continuously updating this laundry lists in books like What Your Sixth Grader Needs to Know doesn’t seem to be the key to understanding the fluidity that goes with the Finnish concept of sivistys.

ylioppilas 1914

100 years ago to wear the white cap symbolizing completion of secondary school was a sign that one was part of Finland’s aristocracy.

In all honesty there have been times when I have had my doubts about sivistys actually having a legitimate meaning. I have often suspected that it was somewhat of a reification – a conceptually abstract word without a proper extra-linguistic object of reference in the material world, or anywhere else outside of the Finnish education system. My impression was that this conceptual abstraction was made up of a combination of leftover influences of German Romanticism mixed with antique justifications for class distinctions within society. Those with higher levels of general education had this something called “sivistys” which entitled them to more respect, higher political positions and better pay than everyone else. In a time when less than 20% of the population had access to a secondary school education “sivistys” provided a readily understandable justification for all of the division between the aristocracy and the peasantry.

This also explains why, when the education reform of the 1970s made general secondary education available to all young people, regardless of economic status or social background, there was a huge cultural push by Finnish mothers in particular to make sure that all of their children would take advantage of this new opportunity and get some of this “sivistys” for themselves. That sort of motivational background for the achievement of individual educational success over the past generation is, in my considered perspective, the single strongest factor in this nation’s educational success story. But now that the vast majority of the population between 20 and 50 years old officially have this “sivistys,” and it no longer provides an excuse for class divisions in what has become an admirably homogeneous and socially mobile society, the question is, what does sivistys stand for these days, and what value remains in the pursuit of such as a goal unto itself? What does sivistys mean to those young Finns who can now largely take an excellent standard of general education for granted? In some ways the appreciation for sivistys as such seems to be in decline; in other ways there is an established gut feeling in relation to this term that isn’t going anywhere.

This winter I attended a symposium held by the national philosophy society here, at which the subject of budget cuts for educational programs promoting philosophy and critical thinking inevitably came up. In the concluding question and answer time I made a public comment that the key to maintaining funding for such programs would seem to be keeping the public, and their elected representatives, convinced that sivistys continues to be something real and something worth paying for. That may or may not have been the impetus for a column written a few weeks later by University of Helsinki emeritus chancellor and professor of theoretical philosophy, Ilkka Niiniluoto, who was also in the audience that night. His essay in the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat (13.01.2018), In this piece entitled “Secondary schools must continue to protect general sivistys” Finland’s living philosopher of the highest status did an admirable job of defining and laying out the case for the importance of sivistys as such.


Emeritus Prof. Ilkka Niiniluoto

The subtitle of the column is, “As secondary schools develop, subjects must not be unfairly placed in opposition to each other.”  In particular he is making the point that the teaching of philosophy should not be discounted as “less useful” than that of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Professor Niiniluoto calculates that those currently in secondary school (or high school for Americans) will remain in the work force theoretically until around the year 2070. By that time developments in artificial intelligence and automation technology will certainly revolutionize the global economy many times over. Thus our students will have to be retrained for new jobs many times during the course of their working lives. So how do we train young people today to face those sorts of future prospects? The answer, Niiniluoto claims, is to be found in the concept of general sivistys:

Sivistys is the continuous renewal, development and refinement of human abilities, skills, knowledge, attitudes and values. Citizens need general sivistys every day. For example literacy, language skills and IT skills are useful both at home and on the job. Though the content of general sivistys is constantly changing, there is still a significant continuity involved.”

He goes on to quote the classic Finnish poet Eino Kaila, who defined sivistys as, “that which you are left with when you have forgotten all that you learned,” but Professor Niiniluoto reinterprets this cynical witticism as implying that “rather than rapidly aging factual information, the most lasting and valuable thing is the ability to seek new information.” Thus a university focusing on sivistys, according to Snellman’s Finnish adaptation of Humbolt’s system, has the joint goals of “creative knowing (learning by following research developments and building a life-long love of knowledge), and then intellectual virtue (using expertise for the good of the fatherland).”

In the Internet age this ability/characteristic is particularly important: “Evaluating the validity and interpreting the relevance of information already freely available on line these days requires of the recipient a high degree of general sivistys.” For this reason it remains important to maintain a broad range of required subjects within the general education system: “Curriculum trials which have offered the option of leaving out history, philosophy or physics, for example, have served the goal of providing an understanding of the world poorly. A system of subject studies is a precondition for interaction between these subjects – just as in universities interdisciplinary studies must be based on interaction between established disciplines.”

The rest of Niiniluoto’s column focuses on the balance between national matriculation examination scores as university entrance criteria and university faculties’ freedom to set their own entrance criteria – pointing out along the way the wording of the law regulating Finnish secondary schools: they are to provide students with “necessary knowledge and skills for continuing education, working life, leisure activities and diversified personal development.” Important stuff for those young people trying to determine where they are going next in their education, and their families, but not so important to an international audience considering the value of the word I am proposing that they adopt. The main point remains, however, that an education which provides sivistys is not “teaching to the test” but rather equipping students to adapt to life under unpredictable and ever-changing conditions. For those purposes instruction in philosophy, even when students will not be taking national exams in the subject, remains crucial to the school’s overall educational task.

When it comes to convincing people of the value and importance of pre-college level philosophy teaching, I would still recommend including Dewey’s perspective on making democracies safe to live in; but enabling students to continuously renew, develop and refine their of abilities, skills, knowledge, attitudes and values so that they are equipped to study, work, play and personally improve as freely and productively as possible makes for a rather verbose but immanently worthy goal for school systems. Philosophy as a subject area is particularly important to the realization of such goals.

Crunching all that down to one word, the Finns call it “sivistys.” For lack of a better word in English maybe you could call it the same.


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Filed under Education, Philosophy, Social identity

Open letter regarding the “Village Drill” business

(This is an extremely long text, laying out the case for these organizations to stop providing publicity and endorsement for an American organization which has been a source of extensive problems for my Kenyan friends and I. It will not be a source of intellectual stimulation for many, but if any of you can help put pressure on these larger organizations to stop providing favorable publicity for the company which has conned us out of far more money than we could afford to lose, your help will be appreciated.)

Brigham Young University, community relations department
TED Talks
American Society of Mechanical Engineers

Greetings to the leaders of the respected organizations listed above. I would like to thank your people for publishing information which has enabled me to better piece together the story of exactly how the con which took me for over a year’s wages last year actually works. This involves an organization known as “WHOlives” which succeeded in convincing me to invest in their product known as “The Village Drill,” which your organizations have inadvertently helped to promote, and which has turned out to be completely unsuitable for operation in the area of western Kenya for which the unit was purchased.

I have no doubt that your organizations believed that WHOlives (hereafter WL) was an upstanding and morally praise-worthy organization when you decided to tacitly endorsed them, but on the basis of the evidence of dishonest marketing and misrepresentation of their charitable intent to be presented here, I hope that you might exercise due diligence in investigating the case against them and then annotating your publications (linked above) accordingly.

My intent here is merely to make you aware of “cognitively challenged” statements made by WL’s representatives on your respective web sites, and to compare those with this company’s other marketing materials, so that you are able to see what sort of product they are producing and what in turn it is being marketed as. Of course my own bitter experience colors the tone of my narrative somewhat, but even if you discount my perspective on that basis, if you still believe in such a phenomenon as objective truth, and you are willing to look for the truth of this matter through a critical analysis of the sources referenced here, I believe that you will find that you are somewhat morally obligated to stop promoting these WL deceptions.

Where to start…

Perhaps the most rational starting point would be to describe what, in essence, the Village Drill (hereafter VD) actually is. It is basically a reverse-engineered variation on the sort of rotary jetting, or rotary mudding, borehole drills that have been used in industrialized countries since internal combustion engines have been powering drills for water wells. (See this source from 1978 for details regarding the evolution of this technology.)

Old rotary jet

Asian manufactured variations on this technology, powered by a 10-15 hp. either diesel or electric motor, sell for between $2000 and $5000 brand new, with full technical support and a 1 year warranty included in the price.

The VD variation on this technology began as a BYU engineering class project, attempting to use these same basic operating principles, only replacing the small motor with human power. To accomplish this they effectively built a rather heavy “input wheel,” which would serve as a horizontal flywheel with a series of handles around its circumference for workers to grab onto and spin it in order to turn the drill assembly. This required reducing the length of the hollow drill rods used by the machine to roughly half the length found in equivalent fully motorized machines, but other than that the parts from the VD are largely interchangeable with those of any other standard rotary jetting borehole drill (as detailed on p. 5 of the ASME report).

NGO professionals in the field of drinking water supply whom I have spoken with, who are familiar with the VD, give it credit as far as saying that in its current iteration it is capable of drilling deeper than any other human-powered well drill on the market at present, but this needs to be qualified in three significant ways:

First of all, the VD is not capable of operation without a motorized pump and a water supply to be used for flushing the borehole while drilling. If the goal were to produce a machine capable of operating under conditions where fossil fuels are not available, the VD fails on the drawing board. This leaves us with the questions of what counts as fully “human powered,” in this context, and what advantages are we looking for in using human power to begin with. Eliminating this small motor does not in fact make the VD essentially any more transportable to remote off-road locations; any donkey cart capable of carrying a VD with its pump and input wheel assemblies could also carry the sort of diesel powered machine that the VD is modeled after to the same location.

Second, because the power source (humans) driving the circular motion of the drill rods and bit in the VD has less than a third of the power of the simple internal combustion motors used in its exemplars, the motorized pump used in the “jetting” or “mudding” aspect of the operation needs to run for much longer periods of time on each job, making the overall difference in fuel consumed and environmental impact rather negligible. Furthermore, because of this power difference, any  rock formations which a motorized rotary jetting drill cannot penetrate will be, a fortiori, far more impenetrable for a VD.

And third, the VD is currently being sold for between 3 and 10 times the cost of a comparable machine with an electric or diesel power source. Nor does this price include any equipment warranty or on-going technical support for VD buyers. Then adding to the cost of operating this machine, but not stated in advance promotional literature, is its continuous need for bearing replacement. The primary moving part engineered specifically for the VD is the “input wheel” with its handles for workers to spin it by. The engineering success of this innovation, however, is called into question by the fact that its bearings must be replaced after every job; after every attempt to drill a borehole.

VD basic

So given these technical limitations and pricing policy issues, who would the potential customers be for such a device? For what would seem to be obvious reasons, WL has been extremely guarded about releasing such information, but some fairly reliable conclusions can be drawn based on the combined information available.

The primary market for VDs, according to the ASME report, has been NGOs, particularly those which provide volunteers with tactile experiences of helping people in developing countries, in many cases reinforcing a “white savior complex” for them. It must be said that , no other borehole drilling machine on the market today enables western volunteers, literally working side-by-side with native laborers, to use their own muscle strength to help provide local people with access to a water table 100-200 feet down. The feeling for these volunteers of getting some dirt under their fingernails and building up a bit of a sweat while “doing good” for the community and with the community by helping turn a drill is something that operating a more reliable and cost-efficient motorized drilling rig just cannot do for them. Thus for some NGOs the VD is the ideal tool to put a small group of (paying) volunteers to work on.

Learning to operate such a system can also be a very valuable experience for junior students of engineering, providing them with practical experience relating to cumulative pressure, hydraulic forces, accounting for geological structures and other aspects of the work they are trying to eventually qualify for. Educational organizations which specialize in “hands on learning” might find that the simple operational structure of the VD could make it an ideal teaching tool in these regards. In other words a VD could have the same sort of value as the old bicycles I taught myself how to take apart and reassemble during my middle school years, or the old mechanical alarm clock that I took apart and reassembled while I was in high school: while there may be other cheaper equipment out there which can still do the same job more reliably, having a machine that is simple enough so that someone disassemble it and discover the basic functions of all of its moving parts can have a value unto itself. In fact there is some evidence that WL is starting to break into that market as part of their NGO market segment.

The third market segment worth mentioning is what the WL spokespersons referred to in their ASME report as “wealthy individuals in the developed world who donated [VDs] for use in developing communities.” This clause is extremely misleading in a number of senses. First of all it assumes that there is some standard form of community organization in place within African nations that could function as a recipient for such a donation. Second, it implies that a VD donated in such a manner would be available to various community members to come and use when they happen to need it.  Most disturbingly, however, it implies that none of those who have invested in VDs for the use of third parties in Africa ever expected to see any return on their investment, and that they (we) could easily afford to lose the amount of money in question. I can emphatically state from personal experience that none of these assumptions or implications holds true!

In this context it is worth pointing out that in his BYU TEDx presentation Christopher Mattson, the primary engineering instructor involved in the VD project, refers to John Renouard having brought in, not “wealthy donors,” but “venture capitalists” (12:10 into the presentation), who, according to his narrative, came to watch their early experimental digs in Africa. Suspending disbelief for the moment on that one, if we take a moment to compare these two narratives, where would these “venture capitalists” have gone by the time of the ASME report?

In short, all of the local business attempts financed by these venture capitalists (which is what venture capitalists do, as a basic matter of definition) in turn failed, after which the VD machines which these investors bought either sat idle or were sold, by way of WL, at a major loss for the investor. The second-hand drill customers were apparently either the type of NGO referred to above, or perhaps WL themselves, accounting for the collection of 4 VDs currently in their stable. (This part, I must admit, is partially speculative, as WL are not particularly forthcoming with information regarding their business history in such matters.) Thus these “venture capitalists” have since then been involuntarily re-categorized as “wealthy donors.”  This enables WL to paper over the fact that the model they are marketing of enabling local entrepreneurs has a 0% success rate, in spite of well-meaning western investors repeatedly losing their (our) money in trying to help in this way.

These business failures for VD operators are in fact something of an economic inevitability. It is easiest to see why this is by looking at some of the material I received from John Renouard, the primary operator of this con, while I was still on the fence as to whether or not to invest. During this period Renouard sent me a document  refer to as a “Memorandum of Understanding,” or MOU, which I take to be a Mormon idiom for a form of legally non-binding business contract. Renouard told me that this form of quasi-contract is something they had “used before,” though I never found out where. The figures given in the MOU presuppose that in normal operation a VD should be capable of putting in drinking water wells at a rate of approximately one per week, and that a 30 wells per year should be the minimum acceptable productivity rate. It further states that if the operator is so lazy as to put in less than 20 wells per year the “lender” is entitled to repossess the VD. Each well –– paid for by land owners, local government agencies, residential water cooperatives or western donors –– is projected to cost the customer approximately $4000 (USD). Of that money, from the profit earned on each job, the VD operator would pay back $200 to the “lender” who by rights still owns the rig. At that rate the VD should pay for itself within two years! Except that in practice this has never happened and never will, regarding which Renouard had no plausible excuse of ignorance when he sent me this “sample” document.

As of the time of the ASME report, WL was operating 4 of their own VDs. With the all of the technical, financial, expert advisory and logistical support that the parent company could pull together to support its own operations, these 4 machines still drilled a combined total of just 5 holes in the ground during the month when the sample data for that study in question were collected; and of those 5 holes 3 actually successfully tapped into ground water. They then claimed that such results should be typical for all VDs currently operation. Assuming that this reflects a typical productivity and success rate for VDs, which the study methodology seems to assume, a normal operator with one VD might optimistically be expected to put in 15 boreholes per year, of which perhaps 10 will actually provide water. This means that the VDs operated corporately by WL themselves are functioning at less than a third of the productivity rate projected by WL as necessary for running a profitable business!

This, however, is just the start of the challenges involved. This part still concerns only the process of “putting holes in the earth,” which,  as Mattson admits 11 minutes into his TEDx talk,  is a very small part of the “grand challenge” of providing access to clean water; his pie chart would indicate that the drilling amounts to 20-23% of the total process to be considered in meeting this grand challenge. When the other necessary factors are accounted for, and when they are deducted from the profit margin that the VD operator can expect to earn from a $4000 job, the potential for an entrepreneur to lose money in this sort of business grows exponentially.

This is particularly true in places where financing is secure enough to create a market for a drinking water well-drilling businesses. These markets have already been penetrated by businesses using more powerful, dependable, efficient and inexpensive machines than the VD, making job pricing highly competitive. This then increases the risk of unprofessional “fly-by-night” operators, in turn creating an atmosphere of limited trust within this industry in general. Customers are skeptical about actually getting what they pay for from any new operators in this field. Under these circumstances every failed attempt to put a suitable hole in the ground using the VD, due to the technical limitations of the device itself, further decreases the possibility of its operator being able to generate the level of business needed to even start paying for the machine.

This brings us to the matter of what sort of geological conditions the VD is suitable for operating in. The ASME report makes no reference to this factor. It does, however, go so far as saying that the VD was designed to improve on systems which are not “well-suited for medium to hard rocks formations.” News flash: the VD itself is anything but suitable for cutting through medium to hard rock formations!

Setting aside VD promotional material for the moment, one needs to keep in mind the basic facts of the matter: that the VD is essentially a less powerful and less dependable version of a basic light weight rotary jetting borehole drill. When it comes to professional recommendations for what type of drilling machine is suitable for what types of geological conditions, no professionals recommend lightweight rotary jetting drills for going through medium to hard rock formations. Some low budget operators do it anyway; slapping special “coring bits” onto their drill rods and pushing their 15 hp. motors to their limit for days at a time. But trying to do the same with a VD is the equivalent of trying to compete in a motorcycle race with a bicycle. Nowhere within WL’s marketing and promotional materials is this basic limitation recognized. On the contrary, it is consistently denied.

My own unfortunate experience with this system began when an old acquaintance of mine, Joel Freeman, began doing marketing work for WL in 2012. I knew Freeman when he was a young pastor of an independent evangelical church on the US East Coast back in the 1970s. He went on from there to do career-defining work as a chaplain in the NBA, and to use those connections to become a “serial entrepreneur” within the “self-help” and “motivational speaking” fields. Due to his sporting connections, not coincidentally, Freeman’s work has focused strongly to “successful people of color” in particular. So it seemed to fit in well with his personal marketing focus area to involve himself in nominally helping Africans –– something he could easily sell to his primary clients as a means of feeling better about themselves.

My own career, meanwhile, has been as a teacher in Finland’s international public schools, particularly in the Nokia Corporation’s home town of Espoo. Some years back I began reconsidering my level of motivation in this field, and as part of that, for the 2011-2012 school year, I took advantage of the possibility to take a sabbatical year off, which I spent in Cape Town, South Africa. When I returned to Finland after that adventure I resumed my teaching on a part-time basis, and began my doctoral studies in the University of Helsinki on the side. This put me in a very tight position financially, but I could live very simply and the chance to participate in top level stimulating intellectual discussions meant more to me than material comfort anyway. And though travelling there was now largely outside of my budget, I remained deeply interested in the African continent.

A year into this part-time teaching / part-time grad student life I met a half-Finnish / half-Kenyan family which was starting to try to start a new NGO to raise money for AIDS orphans in their father’s old home town near Kisumu (the focal point for Kenya’s current political unrest). I became still more interested in their project when I learned that the aid they collected was being distributed by way of an independent church in that village, and that there was a certain missionary dimension to their work. At the same time, however, I knew better than throwing my own money, and trying to encourage others to throw their money, into the operations of anonymous independent church. So to cut to the chase, in the summer of 2014 I made my first visit to western Kenya, to see for myself how this system operated and what I might be able to do to help them.

Drinking water was one of the significant issues we talked about. Freeman’s promotion of the VD system was in the back of my mind during this entire visit, and having paid some of the local boys about $0.50 an hour to taxi me around town on their bicycles while I was there, I saw how there was plenty of cheap labor and a need for employment. If the VD could live up to the billing Freeman gave it, and if the financing of customer payments could be arranged, this seemed like an ideal fit. Thus over the next year I began contacting WL to learn more about their system and to investigate the possibilities of helping my new friends in Kenya to get ahold of a VD and set up a new drinking water providing business. During my next two visits to Kenya in 2015 I spoke with construction workers, business people, local government officials, church folk of all sorts, and even some legal advisors there, about this potential project. Many people got quite enthusiastic about the idea, and I began carefully considering who I might be able to trust there as partners in such a venture. My main concern, however, remained the issue of financing for local customers.  After discussing this matter with Renouard he acknowledged risks and advised caution, in this regard, but he also tried to show how those obstacles could be overcome, sending me the MOU mentioned above as part of this sales pitch. He certainly made no mention of their 0% business success rate, or of the limits their drill faced in dealing with the sort of rock formations that would be encountered on the north side of the Rift Valley, which this VD was being considered for.

My personal economic situation was indeed very hand-to-mouth, but I had access to funds that my father, a far more economically successful man than myself, had set up as a series of trust funds for the care of my family. Did I dare to borrow from these funds for a project in Africa, even if I did expect to get the money back?

I was wavering on this issue until a major crisis struck: During one of my trips to Kenya I started to experience acute asthma-like symptoms, making it hard to breath and causing me to feel rather faint at times. After returning to Finland doctors here still couldn’t tell why I was so out of breath and dizzy all the time… until over a month later they discovered that the aortic valve in my heart was frozen in place. At that point I was immediately rushed to the university hospital for emergency life-or-death heart surgery.

It was during my time in the hospital following that surgery, wondering just how much of a recovery I would make (which was uncertain at times), that I decided I would take a risk of the VD investment. It wasn’t the result of any stereotypical “deal with God,” but rather a decision that after this brush with my own mortality it made sense to me to make helping others a greater priority for however much turned out to be left of my life. Sadly this existential crisis, quite clearly in retrospect, seriously clouded my judgement regarding Renouard’s and Freeman’s trustworthiness.

Upon my return home from the hospital I started working on financial arrangements to move some of the funds which were at my discretion in the US to Utah for a down-payment on a VD. From WL’s receipt of the down-payment for the VD until the unit was ready for shipping took just under 2 months. The actual delivery took another month after that to arrange, on account of my borrowers in Kenya having bought a rather defective vehicle for that purpose. In any case, it was another few weeks after that, in February of 2016, when WL’s trainer arrived in Kisumu to help set things up, and when the real troubles began.

The machine had not been packed into a sealed crate for shipping, as section 2.7 of the ASME report claims that it should have been, and consequently some of its basic parts went missing in transit. Right away there was a dispute over who should be responsible to pay for replacement of these parts. From there the trainer took them through the process of drilling a borehole, but for lack of funds to finish the job it was left as a hole in the ground with a plastic sheeting cover over it. The technical support from WHOlives ended there. The next attempted job, for which this new company was expecting to be paid, ended in technical failure: the crew hit a very hard layer of rock a few dozen meters down before encountering any useable amount of water, and it soon became apparent that this layer of hard subterranean rock  extended all the way across the customer’s property.

Operating on the north side of Kenya’s Rift Valley, these sort of rock formations turned out to be far more the rule than the exception, and the VD simply was not the right sort of machine for breaking through them. Over the next year the team I had finance the VD for drilled a total of 9 holes, 3 of which were successful in finding a useable amount of water.

Most of these jobs were paid for and enabled by a different businessman from Utah, who remained interested in personally helping with Africa’s water situation after having had his own reasons for parting of ways with Renouard. Overall this American sponsor, the Kenyan operator and myself all lost more than we could properly afford in this venture, with little hope of my ever getting even a penny’s worth of return on my investment.

My attempts to discuss the failings of this product with Freeman and Renouard have become increasingly confrontational.  In Renouard’s case this didn’t surprise me at all; in Freeman’s case, slightly more so, though in retrospect it probably shouldn’t have. Both still, in a remarkable feat of imagination based on alternative facts, claim that the VD has the potential to be a “game changer” and any problem with the VD must be the fault of the operator, not the machine itself. Confronted with the fact that believing his sales pitch has cost me more than a year’s wages, Freeman has made extended efforts to justify his belief in WL, without saying so much as “oops” in terms of acknowledging his own culpability in this matter.

Mattson also deserves credit for imagination at least. It takes an incredible amount of imagination to put forward an operationally inferior version of older existing technology, with a 0% success rate at its intended application, as the primary success story of his career as an engineering instructor! This makes me seriously wonder how bad the other “successes” of his career must have been for the VD to jump to the front of the queue as it has.

The primary question that I would put to him is, what happened to the other 76% of the area in his pie chart, labelled “other disciplines” needed to provide water in Africa? Given a 28% well failure rate among their successful boreholes within their first 5 years, a 20% out-of-service rate for these very expensive machines, and an overall productivity rate of less than one working water source per month per operational drill, it would seem that these other disciplines are being rather seriously neglected. Or does that not matter after some sucker like me has been bought and paid for a VD?

But I must say overall that the final 6 minutes of his TEDx presentation, focusing on the VD case, was rather disturbingly dependent on “alternative truths,” ranging from praising Renouard’s “inspired leadership” to claiming that the local manufacturers of VDs in Kenya had produced 8 new drills within “a few months” in 2012; whereas table 3 of the ASME report shows that in no 4 month period over the past 5 years have more than 7 VDs been produced, and over the course of no 2-year period has there been an average production rate of more than one drill per month.

Some of WL’s claims should still need to be directly debunked here:

  • On the video regarding the VD on the BYU website, after claiming a very original design evolution process for their system, at 1:20 Renouard says, “There’s just nothing like it in the world.”
    However section 2.3 of the ASME article repeatedly emphasizes how most of the operational features of the VD were “strategically chosen from existing well-drilling technology.” There are plenty of things like it, and there have been for generations, just using two internal combustion motors instead of one.
  • In talking about drilling their first successful hole in Tanzania, at approximately 2:15 Renouard claims that the VD “far surpasses any manual drill, and in a lot of respects even the huge motorized drills. […] This drill works everywhere.”
    Let me point out again that both of these claims are simply false. There are many types of geological conditions that the VD simply is not suited for. It is like any other rotary jetting drill of the sort that it borrows most of its technology from, only more than twice as expensive and weaker in terms of penetrating capacity.
  • At 2:30: “Here we are 5-6 years into development and we’re in 23 different countries, they have drilled over 1100 boreholes…”
    The video editor appears to have cut him off here before he could make any further disprovable statements, but on that we may never know. Suffice to say the restraints of the peer review process in the ASME less than a year earlier had moderated their claims down to 15 countries and 761 boreholes (VD ASME stats). It seems far more likely that the video’s claim is optimistically exaggerated than that they expanded their operations by 50% within one year. Let the reader judge.
  • At 3:53: “There might be a million people out there that are drinking clean water today because of the work of these engineers at BYU 6 years ago.”
    Hold on. That stretches the colloquial limits of “might” a bit beyond the breaking point; as in, somewhere in the world their might be flying cows.
    The only way to get into 7-digit figures is to talk about “person-months of water,” calculated in terms of the number of people within “walking distance” of a VD-drilled well from the time it went into operation to present day, or until its pump broke down. The way Renouard tosses around 7-digit estimates here clearly demonstrates that emotional impact is more important than factuality in this project.
  • Moving to WL’s own web site, it’s hard to distinguish between intentional deception and just a weak grasp of written English, but let’s try.
    The starting heading of “Creating Economic Independence for Individuals and Communities” is directly in conflict with their batting average of zero at successful entrepreneurship enablement. So far the VD has yet to make a single individual, (other than possibly Renouard himself) economically independent. On the contrary, it has put many of us into very deep economic trouble!
  • It is hard to say anything more about the heading “The Big Lie” than, hmmm, how ironic.
  • “There is only one proven way to reduce and eliminate scarce and contaminated water…”
    Why would anyone want to reduce or eliminate scarce water? Just because water is scarce doesn’t mean you want to eliminate it! Even contaminated water has its uses, as in using rather disease contaminated water for irrigating rice fields in western Kenya.
    Perhaps they are thinking of trying to deal with problems of water scarcity and contamination, but they are hiding their unsustainable claims behind bad grammar.
  • “…a drill strong enough to penetrate nearly all substrates… The Village Drill does just that.”
    Once again, wrong. The word “nearly” is not nearly sufficient as a fig leaf for this blatant lie.
  • “The big lie that most NGO’s fell victim to is the notion that we could solve the scarce and contaminated water crisis by simply having big trucks drill more wells.”
    Besides the vagueness of “most NGO’s” here (the percentage of NGOs in the world which are trying to provide clean water to people exclusively by using large well-drilling trucks is far below 50), there is the false assumption that those who have been in the business of providing people in developing countries with access to clean water for generations already still don’t know what they’re doing!
    In short, again, while certain types of NGOs – due to the structure of their volunteer programs – can seriously benefit from having a VD or two on hand; those which are seriously interested in providing adequate amounts of potable water for the greatest possible number of clients, expending the smallest amount of resources possible in the process, will try to flexibly match the solution to the situation. There is no one size fits all solution, especially the VD!
    Once again the ASME report (2.1) provides an element of contrasting honesty here: “The Village Drill was created to compete in between the well drilling rig and hand auguring/sludging space.” Translating that idea into practical wisdom, if there is a job where very inexpensive traditional hand-drilling systems won’t work anymore, but where a 10 ton rig is not yet necessary, a lightweight rotary jetting rig – something like a VD, only cheaper – might be the proper solution. Most NGOs in specialized in this field have actually been aware of these types of choices and alternatives since before the Peace Corps was founded.
  • “The Leading Piece of Technology in the Fight against Poverty. […] By creating access to clean water to literally millions of people we enable prosperity to take hold.”
    OK, leaving grammar issues aside for now, this combines two previous prevarications in a way that leaves me uncertain what the intent of the section is. First of all that “might be a million” has here been expanded to “literally millions,” demonstrating that whoever wrote this knows the meaning of neither “literally” nor “millions.” Sad.
    Then there’s the implication that communities automatically become richer when they have a VD, running counter to the fact that there is “literally” no community in the world which has a measurably higher income today because of access to one of these rigs. The one true sentence in this paragraph, “Water makes every other humanitarian project better,” is not enough to save it.
  • “The Village Drill creates significant social and economic impact; empowering individuals and communities by providing a cost effective method of accessing clean water reserves.”
    A more honest claim here would be to say that the VD is particularly useful to certain types of NGOs, selling access to a white savior complex as their primary function, and providing water to those who are there for the photo op as a side product. Again I stress the fact that the VD has yet to empower its first African entrepreneur or cooperative water society. For those who wish to make a business of providing water in Africa, there are far more cost-effective ways for them to do so.
  • “Perhaps the Village Drills [sic] greatest feature is its ability to be owned, managed and maintained by local entrepreneurs.”
    The only thing which keeps this from being a bold faced lie is the strategic fig leaf of “perhaps”. Again, some of us have been foolish enough to try, but no one has ever established a successful business using a VD, and it is quite close to an economic inevitability that no one ever will.

Trying to identify all of the factual discrepancies and blatant deceptions in WL’s promotional videos and literature is a more extensive task than fact-checking the speeches of any politician you care to mention. Suffice to say, all of the claims I have made above condemning WL are readily confirmable in WL’s own materials. If, beyond that, anyone here would like to have a copy of to the promotional and/or instructional material which they sent to me as customer, I will be happy to share.

Given this bulk of evidence, I can think of no reason why an organization interested in maintaining its own credibility would continue to promote WL products and services, other than willful ignorance grounded in deep and painful cognitive dissonance. Thus, while I respect the sincere intentions of all 3 of the organizations this letter is addressed to, I would be quite disappointed if any of you would not, with due diligence, investigate WL’s dishonest product claims and business practices, and thereafter make a public statement distancing yourselves from this shameful operation.

For the ASME in particular, however, I would ask that you not remove the article in question; merely annotate it to the effect that the credibility of this organization has come under serious question and thus readers should beware of the likely deceptive intent entailed in some of the authors’ claims.

If any of the others who have been involuntarily re-categorized from “venture capitalists” to “wealthy donors” by Renouard & company happen to read this, and would wish to contact me regarding the possibility of joint legal action, please do so.

If anyone reading this is interested in participating in charitable ventures in Africa that genuinely do save lives, without the funds being siphoned off for corporate overhead or false technological claims, feel free to contact me in that regard and I can direct you to small organizations that have earned my personal trust in their approach to such work. And I swear by all that is holy that I will make no attempt to financially benefit from or support myself through any of your charitable donations for Africa.

Whatever your situation, please spread the word that contributing to the Village Drill project is not a credible means of “doing good” in Africa, or presumably anywhere else in the world. The sooner this system is closed down, the better it will be for the credibility of start-up charitable ventures in general.

Sincerely, David Huisjen, Jr.



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Filed under Philosophy

Taking a Knee

If I were to nominate a list of the greatest sportsmen of the television generation, off the top of my head, my list would have to include the following:

  • Pele
  • Larry Bird
  • “Sugar” Ray Leonard
  • Wayne Gretsky
  • Mark Fidrych
  • Usain Bolt

Obviously this is not a comprehensive list, but I can say with firm confidence that these particular men are individuals who enriched their own fields of competition, setting new examples for young athletes as to what they could aspire to be, while still keeping the whole question of what the purpose of their sport was in perspective.

That last criterion is perhaps the most important here to me: What is the fundamental purpose of sport as such?

Giving this matter some thought, I would contend that there are basically three aspects which give sports the social and economic value that they enjoy today: 1) In an era and culture which demands less physical exertion in order to accomplish “a day’s work” than ever before in human history, sports serve a purpose of keeping people in touch with their bodies, providing a game mentality to motivate individuals to keep their bodies in functional condition. 2) As Jonathan Haidt famously said in his first TED talk, “Sports is to war as pornography is to sex.” A profound insight actually; people vicariously go through the intense emotional experience of an all-out us vs. them battle, allowing them the satisfaction of having epic heroes for their own side and a sense of triumph in being part of a side that “kicked the other guys ass” each game day, (usually) without so many people having to die in the process of providing them with this primitive satisfaction. And then 3) sport is, at its core, merely a form of entertainment; a performance which is pleasant to watch as a means of distracting us from the stresses of everyday life. (Perhaps in that way too is analogous to pornography.)

So to be great in sport effectively requires that the athlete/performer in question plays the role well in terms of motivating others to be physically active, providing a sense of communal pride for the area represented in the performance, and above all has a sort of natural flare and charisma as an entertainer. All of the individuals mentioned above fulfilled those criteria in spades.

Of all of these, perhaps the most memorable for me, but the most obscure for those weren’t around in the United States in the late 70s, is Mark “the Bird” Fidrych. Baseball as a sport is essentially a series of duels between the pitchers and the batters, with everyone else basically standing around most of the time on their toes waiting to see how each duel will play out. Generally speaking, for those who cannot readily empathize with the experiences of those on both sides in this duel, in terms of entertainment value watching a baseball game ranks somewhere between watching bowling and watching paint dry. The only hope for the game becoming interesting is if there is someone particularly heroically talented and interesting to watch as either batter or pitcher. Arguably the most entertaining pitcher the game has ever seen was “the Bird”: a rookie in 1976 for the Detroit Tigers who was statistically the best pitcher of that year, who seriously boosted the morale of the city of Detroit during the time that it was losing its status as the automobile capital of the world. Not only could he throw the ball with incredible speed and accuracy, and not only was he a genius at spreading a feeling of comradery and good cheer to everyone else on his team, Fidrych just had his own funky style and charisma on the mound. Perhaps one reason that so many batters found his pitches so hard to hit was that they were always on the verge of cracking up laughing at this tall, gangly, quirky character with all of this bouncy, naturally curly blonde hair sticking out from under his cap.


As the semi-tragic story goes, in his second season Fidrych suffered (quite seriously) from torn cartilage in his right shoulder and doctors never managed to put it back together entirely right thereafter. So with the money from his one great year of fame and fortune he set himself up with a family farm and a landscaping business, and he lived fairly comfortably as a contractor and part-time Detroit city celebrity for the next thirty-some years –– albeit always plagued with a little bit of “what if,” but keeping life in perspective and balance regardless… until one day in 2009 a heavy dump truck that he was trying to repair rolled over on top of him and killed him. Too early retired from sport, too early dead; but for one glorious year he rewrote the book on how baseball could and should be played.

So what sends me on this trip 40 years back down Nostalgia Lane? Obviously the current crises of the NFL. Two things in particular are calling the whole identity of this sports mega-industry into question: kneeling and brain injuries. Which of these you find most disturbing says a lot about your politics, and though I hate to say it, about your maturity as a human being.

This summer a study came out showing that 99% of the former professional American football players who donated their brains for scientific study post-mortem because of having experienced psychological problems later in life turned out to have major brain malfunctions caused by repeated head trauma. The latest case of this problem to be diagnosed, after this study was concluded, was Aaron Hernandez, former star player for the New England Patriots who committed suicide in prison this spring at the ripe old age of 27. One of the problems here, however, is that this medical diagnosis can only be reached through an autopsy after the player’s death.

gladiator football af

American football players have frequently been nicknamed “gladiators of the gridiron.”  That image is now coming back to haunt the sport. The original gladiators were elite slaves who fought to the death for their masters’ profit and prestige, and for the amusement of the bloodthirsty public. Some of the original Roman gladiators became fabulously rich, and were able to buy their freedom and live a life of relative luxury thereafter; but that doesn’t mean there was nothing wrong with the system from which they benefited. It doesn’t discount the immoral and nearly inhuman nature of “the games” themselves. So how closely does that compare with American football? How much of the thrill of the game involves watching massive levels of gratuitous violence, with little concern for how that can potentially destroy the lives of those on the ground attacking each other to providing such a spectacle?

Football of course is not the only sport with a long history of and reputation for violence. A couple of generations ago there were still laughs to be had from the joke that was already old at that point: “Last night I went to watch a street fight and an ice hockey game broke out!” Old hockey players could be identified by their multiply broken noses and extensive facial scarring. They too frequently died of the complicated after-effects of repeated brain injury. That has largely changed now. Part of it had to do with rule changes to require more safety equipment being required in play and stronger penalties against violent action on the ice. But perhaps more of it had to do with a new generation of players with a new, more skillfully refined style of play, in many regards pioneered by Wayne Gretsky.

What would it take to bring the equivalent sort of changes about in American football? Is there any hope of accomplishing this within the next generation? What should be done to protect the would-be gladiators in question in the meantime?

Then there is the matter of kneeling. This has become a trend around the league, started by now former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick. In the beginning of last year’s season Kaepernick –– a mixed race child by birth who was adopted and raised by a white family, first in the Mid-west and then on the West Coast –– felt that paying reverence to the playing of the “Star-spangled Banner” at the beginning of each game went against his moral convictions by tacitly approving of some profoundly dysfunctional elements of American culture, often involving atrocities committed by those wearing an American flag on their sleeve. Chief among these was the on-going problem unpunished police shootings of young black men on city streets around the country. Kaepernick started his protest by sitting down rather than standing as the music played. Later, after taking into account the perspective of a respected military veteran friend of his, he changed his approach to kneeling on one knee as it played. For those who were defensive about the white supremacist culture he was protesting against by doing so the effect was the same: making a symbolic public declaration at a sporting event that there is something wrong with the structure of American society is considered “shameful” and “traitorous,” and worst of all, disrespectful towards those being sent to die defending the United States’ right to police the Middle East.


From New York Times

For what difference it makes, Kaepernick himself is currently unemployed. After the coach he began playing for San Francisco under, Jim Harbaugh, took a job at the University of Michigan, long before the whole national anthem protest thing started, Kaepernick started having more and more trouble working with the new 49er bosses, and his performance suffered because of it. This may or may not have had anything to do with his decision to become a vegan around that same time. Whatever the case, after last season he decided not to continue his career with San Francisco and became available as a free agent, but no team in the NFL was interested in hiring him for the current season. That might or might not count as paying the price for his political convictions.

Even so, the national anthem kneeling trend he started has caught on around the league. (As I am writing this a news flash pops up on my computer screen that the entire Dallas Cowboys team, arm-in-arm with the team owner, knelt together as the national anthem played at the beginning of their game Monday night.)

There is, of course, a long history of athletes, black athletes in particular, using their passing celebrity status to make what they hope will be lasting political points. Perhaps the most infamous of those was the black power solute given by black American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the awards ceremony of the 1968 Olympics, which not terribly surprisingly, has been pointed out and reconsidered by a number of significant news outlets this week. Those men too were deeply hated by defenders of white hegemony at the time, but eventually the heroism of their stand, and their willingness to suffer for it, came to be recognized around the world, and even by most non-white supremacists within the United States.

Within less than a week it has become almost cliché to ask, but I will ask anyway, is there any moral difference between Smith and Carlos’ protest gesture and Kaepernick’s? Or redirecting the same question back to my opening considerations here, does protesting in either of these ways take away from what sport is ultimately supposed to be or to do for people? Does it, in some fundamental way, mean that these men are not “doing their job right”? That, dear friends, depends on what you consider the core essence of “their job” to be.

I go back to my starting list of characteristics. When it comes to being an example and inspiration of being in touch with their own bodies and training themselves to accomplish great feats of strength, skill and endurance on the field of play, I don’t think anyone can claim that taking a symbolic stand on political issues takes away from any of that. If anything it might make kids of all skin colors and backgrounds aware of the possibility to use their athletic skill to get their chosen ideological or religious message across to a larger audience. That in turn could lead to better, stronger and more dedicated athletes in the future, who are both competing with each other and working together not only to score points within their respective leagues, but also to bring public attention to things that are important to them. As long as they are not promoting bigotry, violence or irresponsibly dangerous behavior in the process I don’t see any problem with that. There are far worse ways of doing politics.

When it comes to just putting on a good show, entertaining the audience not only with their strength and skill, but their basic charisma, some would find the protestors’ actions to be something that keeps them from being able to enjoy the show. I know people who cannot appreciate either the Dixie Chicks’ or Ted Nugent’s music, or Jane Fonda’s or Clint Eastwood’s acting performances, on account of not being able to separate the performance from the performers’ respective political perspectives. (To be honest with you, none of the four examples are generally within my entertainment taste, for entirely non-political reasons, but that’s beside the point.) This is something I would consider to be more justifiable to complain about in one respect, and something that would certainly justify not paying to watch the sports in question when offensively politically active athletes are performing there. I would even go so far as to consider boycotts of the performances of the athletes in question to be fully justifiable… as long as such a boycott is recognized as just another aspect of the same freedom of speech and expression that the protesting athletes themselves are exercising, and as long as the protests against their protests can be kept respectful of the human dignity of the performers in question. That principle is clearly lost on those who would use the anonymity of the Internet to send violent curses and death threats to those who protest against their chosen political orientation.

The hardest aspect to morally evaluate, however, is how athletes making gestures of protest before or after their competitions relates to their roles as surrogate warriors. If there are sad souls out there who have no greater joy in life than to share a feeling of vicarious pseudo-military conflict with their fellow fans (or in British, “supporters”) of a particular sports team, dropping their support for that team because some of the players happen to be publically opposed to their political views might not be an option.

To quote from Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool Football Club manager from yesteryear, regarding what the British call football, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” It is not hard to imagine many fans of American football, particularly from the “fly-over states” sharing his perspective regarding their own passionately followed sport. Thus it is not hard to see how they would feel violently conflicted over players on the teams they support, or on the opposing teams for that matter, making a symbolic statement against the political positions they hold, especially when their own political positions are based on assumptions of white hegemony and militaristic authoritarianism.

If these fans, who have indeed been paying the players’ salaries, expect the players in turn to provide them with a satisfyingly violent spectacle to help reinforce their militant world views, without having the audacity to challenge their political perspectives in the process, it is easy to see why they would feel outraged. It is also easy to see how a demagogue, who also happens to be the 45th president of the United States, would want to try to capitalize on their outrage. That doesn’t justify it in either case. The fact that the president referred to the primarily black protestors as “sons of bitches” and that he complained about the league’s limited efforts to limit violence and injury as already being too much in that same speech, speak volumes about the mentality he is operating on.

I happen to consider American football to be the perfect sport for Americans in general: It involves less overall endurance, more chess-like strategic planning and more moments of incredible adrenaline rush per competition than any other sport I have ever watched. On top of that it seems to be ideal for commercial television in terms of the natural breaks in the action that happen to provide easy places to insert advertising. It would be a shame to lose this sort of entertainment spectacle because of nothing being done about the risks and problems it entails in its current form. But to enable this sport to do less harm than good in the long run both of the issues raised here need to be dealt with.

First of all the rules of the sport need to be changed to reduce its similarity with the original gladiatorial combat of ancient Rome. Having men literally killing each other and tearing each other apart for the amusement of a live audience should not be morally acceptable, regardless of how good the ratings are. If changing the rules to reduce the extent to which bodies and minds are destroyed in the process of competition reduces the popularity and profitability of the sport, so be it. There should be a consensus, even in the United States, that moving away from actual “hunger games” here is just the right thing to do.

How could that be done? I am not educated enough in sports medicine to set myself up as a consultant on the matter, so anything I say here goes in the “for what it’s worth” category. That being said, a defeatist strategy of keeping things as they are to preserve ratings, regardless of the human cost, is not a morally acceptable option. Thus my first suggestion would be the requirement to use new concussion detection technology on the sidelines in all games at all competitive levels. This needs to be taken very seriously. Thus any player who receives a concussion in the course of play must be automatically placed on recovery leave and not allowed to play in competitions or to train for competition in ways that could increase brain damage for a set number of weeks. The penalty for concealing a concussion to avoid exclusion from play needs to be harsh enough to prevent that from happening as well. Furthermore, any player causing a concussion to any other player, even inadvertently, needs to be placed on suspension from competition for a roughly equivalent period of time to the recovery requirement for the victim. This set of rules needs to be enforced firmly enough to change the fundamental culture of the game so that the threat of destroying the bodies of the best players on the other team ceases to be a strategic goal within the sport. Beyond that the game situations in which the most serious injuries occur need to be carefully analyzed and as far as possible diffused through changes in rules, in consultation with specialized physicians, regarding the types of protective equipment needs to be worn, the starting positions for different play situations, and the types of blocks and tackles permitted.

Regarding the kneeling protests and the like, I suspect that the crisis will need to be overcome through fans growing up enough to no longer base their lives on their identification with their local team. In the end the players are not gladiators in the old sense of the word; nor are they warriors fighting for the honor and glory of their city-state. They are merely entertainers, using their own particular skills to provide a temporary distraction from the cares of this world. In the process of making a good show out of it they try to make it into a sort of fair form of competition as well, but in the end it is still just a game –– just another show. So if some of the players happen to offend you with their openness about their political views, you can actually walk away and find some other means of distracting yourself from your stresses in life; no harm done.

For those who need something more closely resembling the thrill of warfare in their lives to feel suitably stimulated, if on-line role playing games aren’t enough for you there are always things like paint ball, and then there are actual military services that you can join. If none of those options are suitable for you, find your own way of dealing with your violent fantasy world, or get some appropriate form of therapy for it.

Meanwhile, if the United States remains a free country, worth taking pride in (for those who underestimate the rest of the industrialized world), then athletes will maintain the right to peacefully protest injustices there that they are aware of; and athletes being free to do so is a basic prerequisite for any form of cultural greatness which might follow. Suck it up.

Beyond that, putting the two issues together, it might be best in the long run for Kaepernick, and outspoken American football stars like him, to find themselves excluded from football for the time being while both of these issues are getting sorted out within the league. Kaepernick has been known as one of the league’s most run-ready quarterbacks, meaning he has regularly put himself in more danger of getting seriously messed up while being tackled than the average quarterback. For now, if Kaepernick uses his fortune as wisely, as Mark Fidrych used his, he should be able to get by economically without playing ball for quite a while, giving him more opportunities meanwhile to use his fame as a means of standing up for those at other forms of risk than NFL players are. I’m not inclined to feel sorry for him yet; he’s got a long ways to go in catching up with other black athletes in terms of suffering for their stand on behalf of their own people. If he is sincere about this issue being bigger than football for him he has little to complain about in terms of how he has been treated at this point. That should leave him free to speak to the bigger issue of what he hoped to accomplish with his protest. If he uses this opportunity well I am more than willing to honor him for it.

In Europe the use of national anthems at sporting events is limited to that of the winning team or competitor being played at the end of the competition as prizes are being given out. No one puts their hands on their hearts, but everyone in the stadiums stands up for such occasions I have no problem with that. I’m inclined to try to follow protocol as much as possible under such circumstances. Attending many different churches as I do, I’m frequently confused about when I’m supposed to be sitting, standing or kneeling as part of the ceremony, but I follow along as best I can. But when someone breaks these trivial protocols to make a point, and it is a point worth making, I respect that.

If there’s a chance of reducing the power and acceptability of bigotry by kneeling at the “wrong time,” I am willing to do so. I hope others would be as well. I’ll leave it at that.




Filed under Ethics, Politics, Pop culture, Racism, Religion, Solidarity, Warfare

Racism, Hegemony and Transition

Setting aside my more personal philosophical concerns for a moment, I need to address an issue which many of my American friends and acquaintances in particular are struggling with, and which many more are struggling to avoid dealing with: How do we define the term racism, and what needs to be done about the problem of racism today, particularly in the American context?

It has now been over 150 years since holding black people as slaves became illegal in the United States ––since those determined to hold onto those slaves lost a brutal war regarding the matter –– yet in many ways the US is still struggling to come to terms with that legacy of shame. For some it remains a matter of principle to keep believing that the federal government never should have taken away their right to own other human beings whom they considered to be their natural inferiors.  Thus they consider it a matter of justifiable civic pride to hold onto flags, monuments and other symbols of their struggle to keep blacks enslaved.


For others the issue is a matter of ignoring the continuous efforts to keep darker skinned people in a position of fear and subservience, saying that since slavery has been over for so long black people should not be allowed to use the problems stemming from that institution as an excuse for the position they find themselves in; they should work harder, avoid drugs and violence more thoroughly, be more committed to family values and save money more carefully, and if they do that they can have the same opportunities as any white people have. It is rather difficult to determine to what extent the ignorance and assumptions of moral inferiority inherent in this argument are simply the result of poor education among those who hold such beliefs, and to what extent they are a matter of certain white people struggling to maintain the assumption that black people are naturally inferior and thus need to be kept in submission to their lighter skinned masters.

Others, it must be admitted don’t really care so much about the position of darker skinned people in society, but they wish to make a political football of the subject, trying to blame problems related to slavery on the other political party: either emphasizing or denying the extent to which the major parties swapped roles regarding the civil rights struggle between the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan.  As tempting as it is to get distracted by proving historical points in this regard though, let me simply say that there are still manipulative con men in both parties trying to accuse the other of being racist purely as a cynical political tactic, but for poorer blacks there is little question in their mind as to which party they can expect to take an interest in their situation; and for whites who are resentful of government putting black people’s needs and interests ahead of their own, it is equally clear in their minds which party to turn to in order to try to correct this situation. Both may be mistaken in whom they have decided to trust in these matters, but the alliances which the parties have established in terms of racial interests are quite clear these days.

But this is largely a distraction from the main point I want to get to here: what will happen when white men are no longer in the position to say what sort of rules everyone else needs to live and play by? Such a day is fast approaching for the United States. It is more or less demographically certain that within the next generation, for the first time in the nation’s history, white people will make up less than half of the United States’ citizens. If something resembling a functional, honest democracy remains in place, that will mean that the various brown and black people of the country will have the possibility of bonding together and setting the rules that white people will have to live and play by. This has many white racists loading both their britches and their rifles.

This is where the word hegemony comes in. Originally an ancient Greek term for international domination, hegemony was largely re-defined by the work of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist that died in prison for taking a stand against Mussolini. Gramsci was trying to find a way of describing what enabled Mussolini to convince people to follow his orders and support his regime, even though they were seriously screwing up their own lives in doing so. Basically Gramsci theorized that the secret behind Mussolini’s power, and many other such self-appointed dictators, was that he was able to make people believe that his authority was simply part of the natural order of things. So according to this understanding of the terms, if you can convince people that you are somehow naturally entitled to be in charge, and that things will work best for everyone involved if they would just settle down and do what you tell them to, then you are in a position of hegemony. Sound familiar?

In practice we find many examples of hegemony in our world today. One of the biggest challenges in doing charitable work in Africa, in fact, is to avoid reinforcing the hegemonic structures that have caused so many of that continent’s problems to begin with. Colonial racists spent centuries working on constructing a position of hegemony for themselves there, in many cases quite successfully. Consequently, though it isn’t part of the natural order of things that black people need white people to take care of them, tell them what to do and manage their economic structures for them, many Africans –– both black and white –– keep operating on an assumption that this would be the case. Part of the solution to this problem is simply to provide native Africans with the sort of education that has previously been available primarily just to white people; part of it is to help them overcome the scourge of tribal infighting which made them vulnerable to colonization to begin with; and part of it is to undo some of the remaining structural remnants of colonial governance intentionally designed to keep local people in helpless passive submission. But those actions involve cultural shifts which could take many generations to bring about. In the meantime we still need to take empathetic action to help those who are suffering in extreme poverty. We just have to do so without perpetuating the myth that the only way they can survive is with the help of white men –– easier said than done.

Back in America, meanwhile, the racial and cultural hegemony has its own implications, complexities and ugly aspects to be dealt with. Many southern white leaders in the mid-19th century, while trying to justifying themselves as slave-holders, theorized that God intended black men to be under the control of white men since the days of Noah, constructing a vast number of theological, anthropological, evolutionary and historical arguments to back up this claim. Losing the Civil War and the legal right to hold slaves did not eliminate their deep existential commitment to these arguments, and consequently many these arguments have been passed down through the 5 or 6 generations since slaves were set free. The core element of these arguments is an implicit belief that for a modern western society to continue to function in a stable and sustainable manner, white people need to be in charge, and the rules that everyone else as well needs to live by are those formulated by white people. Those who continue to believe in and perpetuate such a myth –– whether of white, black, mixed or other racial origin themselves –– are part of the American cultural problem of assumed white hegemony.

White hegemony has had a rather diverse history in the United States. In the time of the “founding fathers” it was quite explicitly part of the nation’s ideology. If you have any doubts about this look up the Supreme Court case of Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823): buying property from a native tribe doesn’t count as a legal transaction, because only white men could be party to binding legal contracts. In the time following the American Civil War there was a relatively brief period during which some former Confederate leaders recognized black people as partners in the process of democratic governance, but that was swiftly brought to an end in the 1890s by the infamous “Jim Crow” laws. Those who took part in mixed race political parties, including such as former generals William Mahone, James Longstreet and even P.G.T. Beauregard, were labelled as traitors to their race and as much as possible systematically forgotten. Blacks who could not be trusted to support “respectable” white leaders were systematically prevented from voting.


Publicly murdering a black person or two every now and again helped keep them in a submissive mood. Beyond that, making sure that services for white people were kept separate from services for black people gave the former a certain sense of security and superiority over the next few generations. I won’t detail the extent of the racist crimes that extended from the Hayes presidency to the Truman era, but suffice to say, in those years there was never any question of black people being given equal rights and opportunities in American culture. It was only with desegregation rulings of the US Supreme Court in the 1950s, and the courageous civil rights protests of the 1960s, that black people’s rights to recognition as people, and the federal government’s responsibility to protect their rights as people, started to be taken seriously in US law.

Most southerners have gradually started to accept black people as teammates, co-workers and fellow citizens over the past couple of generations since then, but this has not been a smooth or painless process. For many the unspoken limit to their tolerance for their darker-skinned neighbors  has remained the principle of white hegemony: as long as black people are willing to abide by the basic rules set for everyone by the white people –– who need to remain in exclusive control of all mechanisms of legislation and administration in the nation –– then we can allow them to live and work in peace together with us. As long as things seemed to work smoothly on that basis many optimists even claimed that racism had ceased to be a problem in the United States… until that trouble-maker Obama came along.

Obama brought together the oratory flare of the black Protestant church tradition with the benefits he gained from a liberal white upbringing, an Ivy League education and an interracial late baby boomer’s sense of cool. This combination enabled him to win the hearts and minds of pretty much all black and brown people in the US, with a large enough minority of white people supporting him for him to handily become as the first non-white president of the nation. This sent a shock-wave through the racist community: it wasn’t so much that this dark-skinned president was initiating dangerous policies for the nation (though many would try to claim that this was the case), but he rather posed an existential threat to their basic belief that for things to operate properly in the nation white people need to remain in charge. All of a sudden the willingness of whites to peacefully coexist with their darker-skinned neighbors as long as they were willing to abide by basic white rules started to get a lot less clear. Coexisting under rules that a black man had helped put in place wasn’t something they were ready to sign off on!

Suffice to say the next US president succeeded in getting elected by bringing together all of those who shared these fears and resentments of the increasing status and influence of darker-skinned people in society, together with those who became economic losers because of automation that came with the IT revolution and because of increasingly internationalized trade. His core message was the dishonest claim that he could basically turn back the clock in terms of demographics, human rights and technology to a time when these formerly middle class whites’ incomes and positions in society were more secure. Probably few people were ignorant enough to believe this message at face value, but if this guy would push back against blacks, immigrants, global financial interests and “progress” in general, that would be close enough to satisfy the base he was building. From there having an opponent who was even easier for the heartland to hate than he was proved to be enough to put him this crooked rich boy from New York over the top in terms of the Electoral College vote.  Even so, it shocked many Americans, and pretty much all of the rest of the world, that an American national election could be won on the basis of such ugly sentiments and blatantly false claims. In the famous words of Apollo 13, “Houston, we have a problem!”

For all the international humiliation that this administration has brought on the United States in its first year, however, one thing remains clear: as long as the US maintains its current constitutional democratic structure, the reactionary defense of white hegemony which brought this president to power is destined to be defeated and eliminated over the course of the next generation. As hard as white Bible Belt Baptists, Amish, Mormons and other such groups try to encourage their women to have “quivers full” of kids, and as hard as they try to stop non-Europeans from being able to immigrate to America, within the next 40 years white people and self-identified Christians will make up less than half of the US population. The Obama presidency was merely the first shot across the white hegemonists’ bow, signaling the impending end of their era. The current crop of racists and reactionaries controlling the Republican Party now have to decide how they are going to deal with this.

I qualify this prediction, however, with an awareness that there are supporters of the current president who are so committed to the principle of white hegemony that they would rather destroy the American system of government than to allow white hegemony to come to an end. We have seen more and more of these people on the streets of America this summer, and as the likelihood of the current president being removed from office before the end of his first term increases, there is an ever increasing chance that his most blatantly racist and reactionary supporters will attempt to violently prevent the constitutional processes in question. So one of the serious questions to be asked is whether the US constitutional structure and civil society will be strong enough to hold these reactionaries in check. I hope and believe so, but I also hoped and believed that Americans would be intelligent enough not to elect the current president to begin with. Likewise in the early 1930s most people would have hoped and believed that such an advanced society as Germany would be able to prevent a violent reactionary racist group like the Nazis from winning an election and seizing power there. We’ll see what happens.

The main message for Americans today to recognize is that things will not remain the same, and they certainly will not go back to the way they were in the early 1950s. There will either be bloody chaos leading to the demise of the United States as a constitutional democracy and a global power, or their will be a tense yet peaceful transition out of white hegemony into a more genuinely multi-cultural and tolerant society. This latter alternative, however, will require that, rather than trying to unilaterally set all the rules which darker-skinned people must live by and beat them into submission to those rules, white Americans must, learn to listen more carefully and respectfully to the interests, concerns and yes, demands of non-whites. Preferably they should learn to do this sort of listening before they lose their majority status entirely. If there is one thing that the past decade has proven beyond doubt though, it is that a significant number of white Americans still have a lot to learn in that regard, and a high degree of resistance to the learning process. Even so, hope remains.

For other “developed” western countries the demographic shift is less inevitable, but the need to establish sincere and productive inter-ethnic dialogues is just as critical. Fortunately most countries can approach this new situation with a cleaner slate than the United States, but former colonial powers in particular still face some major challenges in learning to listen to their darker-skinned citizens. Yet I firmly believe that if this challenge is faced with sincere mutual respect and a desire to more sincerely live up to our ideals of respecting the value of every person as a person, there is good reason to hope for the best.

May God protect us from ourselves in any case.


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Filed under Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Racism, Social identity, Tolerance

Crisis Update for Summer of 2017

It is going on two years ago that I posted here about my emergency heart surgery and my brush with my own mortality in the late summer of 2015. Since then I’ve physically recovered better than would have been expected in most ways, but in all honesty I’m still struggling to find the new, post-operation “normal” in my life. Over the past year in particular I’ve been facing various forms of existential crises that in some ways have been more difficult for me than the heart surgery recovery itself. This was crystalized for me in the realization this spring that in 2016 I was actually conned out of more money than I was able to earn during the course of the year!

I’m not talking about paying more for little treats for myself than what I should have paid; I’m talking about being tricked into paying for something essentially useless, that quite literally cost me significantly more than my year’s salary. This has led to some significant stress handling difficulties for me, and it has forced me to re-evaluate the direction of what’s left of my life. For those who have been tracking on my life and ideas here –– friends, family, regular readers and those who are otherwise in the habit of praying for me –– as I did following the surgery a couple years ago, I feel I should explain this in a bit more detail.

For 18 years now –– basically the last third of my life –– my primary employer has been the City of Espoo’s municipal board of education. I got into the business of being a school teacher two years before that, teaching philosophy at an adult high school, and based on recommendations by friends and colleagues who were impressed with my work, Espoo’s Etelä Tapiolan lukio (South Tapiola High School) hired me to teach the  same subject area.


My primary subjects to start with there were philosophy and religious education, and in addition to those I was asked to teach psychology as well. Working with the basic background I had in the subject from my studies in theology, and with a bit of help from my friends, I managed to teach myself enough of that subject to bluff my way through teaching it to teenagers fairly well also. In my second year at Etelä Tapiola they started offering a modified international version of the British secondary school diploma system, as designed by Cambridge University, known as the AICE Programme. Within that system I began teaching sociology as an “AS-level” examination subject. That soon became one of the school’s most popular courses, and I found it very interesting and rewarding to teach it. The following year I was asked to start teaching the required “value subjects” –– religious education and ethics –– at the middle school level, in the English-speaking classes at Pohjois Tapiolan yläaste (North Tapiola Middle School): the primary “feeder school” for the English-speaking line at Etelä Tapiola at the time. This line at “Pohjis” eventually evolved into what is now Espoo International School. I had some reservations about that part of the work to start with –– the idea of trying to get 13-16-year-olds to take religious education seriously, which many of them clearly saw as the academic subject they were required to take which had the least relevance to life as they know it, did not sound like a particularly rewarding career path –– but I ended up making myself quite at home in that aspect of my career as well.

This career opened up for me, I have to admit, not just because I was good at it, but because really no one else wanted it. I can count on the fingers of one hand, without using my thumb, the total number of native English-speaking people in the world who are qualified to teach religious education in Finland, and there are actually many good reasons for that. In fact the biggest challenge I faced over the course of my first seven years teaching in Espoo was my epic struggle to become officially qualified to do the work that I was doing! That is obviously a very long and very painful story that I won’t go into just now. In any case, to start with I was brought in to teach in a program that was being phased out, without any clear indication of what sort of program would follow for those studying in English to get university entrance qualifications through in Espoo’s public school system. Over the course of my career these systems have frequently been in flux, but somehow I’ve managed to keep going with them for a remarkably long time by Espoo standards.

My passion for this work, across all of the subjects that I have taught, has been for getting teenagers engaged in discussions about the very meaning of life: what counts as truth; what counts as “normal”;  what sorts of goals are worth working towards; why should we bother with various sorts of expectations we are faced with; what kinds of things all people should theoretically be entitled to, just because they are people; and how we can constructively relate to those who come from entirely different religious, cultural and ideological backgrounds. Especially while I was struggling for official qualification in the field I wasn’t making much money at this, but I received strong feedback that I was making a difference for some of these kids, and helping all of them to think more carefully about what they were doing with their lives. And then when my sons, who went to an entirely different school in the next city, started to get a bit of extra recognition within their extended peer networks for having a father who was recognized as a rather cool teacher, that made up for a lot of the grief I had to deal with along the way.

But as my sons became adults another major shift happened in my career: Etelä Tapiolan lukio switched over from its improvised combination Finnish-British system to being part of the de facto mainstream in English-speaking international secondary education: it became an International Baccalaureate school. This was helpful for the school in many ways, but one of the side effects was that the subjects that I was most passionate about teaching no longer fit into the school’s curriculum. I could no longer teach philosophy, psychology, sociology or higher level religious education: I was asked to take up the IB “Theory of Knowledge” class, and to do middle school student guidance counselling to fill the gap in my hours and keep me on staff, but these weren’t where my heart was at. Finally, for the 2011-12 school year, I decided to take a sabbatical break, which I spent in Cape Town, South Africa, not really sure if I would be coming back to Espoo from there or not.

I didn’t find any way to permanently settle in there in Cape Town though, and I didn’t find any other alternative employment right away, so in the fall of 2012 I did return to Espoo International school, now as only a part-time teacher of middle school religious education and ethics. The salary for this actually turned out to be less than my sabbatical pay had been, but I had no childcare, alimony or mortgage payments to make any more, so I decided I would just tighten my belt and live with it. To keep myself out of trouble I applied to start working on my PhD at the University of Helsinki and I was accepted directly into that program for the next spring semester. Things looked pretty tolerable at that point.

I won’t go into any details about how things at the middle school have deteriorated for me since then, or how my extended sick leave for emergency heart surgery figured into the big picture. Suffice to say, my salary has progressively decreased, the workplace stress has progressively increased, and the feeling of making a positive difference in those young lives has largely faded away for me. Gradually I came to realize that my long-term unemployed friends here actually, quite literally, have a higher economic standard of living than I do. And then, as frosting on the cake for this stage of burn-out, came the realization that a loan I had arranged, to help some working men in western Kenya start a business providing safe drinking water for people in their region –– for a sum significantly more than what my 2016 salary turned out to be –– was money that I would never see again!

The bulk of that money had gone into buying what was supposed to be a top-of-the-line borehole drilling machine, which in spite of all the hype associated with it, turned out to be an essentially useless piece of equipment in the area where it was intended to be put to use. I have since come to the conclusion that those selling these machines are among the lowest level of con artists.

VD basic

I will follow up in a later blog with more details of the con I fell for here, giving more specific warnings to keep others from falling for the same. For now I will simply tell you that machine I was conned into helping my Kenyan friends buy is called The Village Drill (abbreviated hereafter as VD), designed and marketed by a group of Mormon engineers from Utah operating under the generically religious sounding corporate name of WHOlives. I was referred to these people by a former clergyman, who now self-identifies as a “serial entrepreneur” and a “motivational speaker.” That in itself should have set off all sorts of warning lights for me, but I mistakenly believed that I could trust the integrity of this individual I knew from 2/3 of my life ago regardless of his “career shifts.” That has turned out to be the most expensive mistake of my life thus far. When a man who has been through multiple divorces tells you that something else has been his most expensive mistake in life, that should tell you something!

The VD –– in the words of one established expert in the field I have since been talking to –– is essentially “a beefed up version of manual rotary jetting with a little more capacity to drill through clay and soft/weathered rock”. The third column of the chart below indicates what such a machine is best suited for:

In short, there is nothing particularly revolutionary about this machine. It is not at all suited for the sort of geographical conditions found in the area north of the west end of Kenya’s Rift Valley, it is priced at roughly ten times what a diesel or electric powered drill of comparable size and weight goes for, with lower penetrating capabilities than such motorized machines (from which it borrows its basic drilling technology), it has significant maintenance problems, and for all that it comes with no warranty and with seriously deficient customer support.

Consequently the only customers that WHOlives has had for the VD thus far –– according to a report they managed to slip into a peer-reviewed engineering journal last year –– have been “either non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or wealthy individuals in the developed world who donated them for use in developing communities.” In other words they have been trying to go after people with deep enough pockets where they can afford to lose money; and if the poor people of Africa end up not getting as much as promised in the process, “at least they tried.” Of course this report leaves out mention of at least one Kenyan start-up, funded with a loan arranged by a rather gullible school teacher from Finland, but in that regard I will be in touch with the journal in question to suggest corrections and retractions later.

So now what do I do? I’m trying to try to avoid getting too cynical about this mess. My Kenyan connections made their own significant mistakes in this process, but they tried very hard to get this massively overpriced sub-optimal piece of Mormon engineering to work and I really can’t want to blame them for failing at it. I was the one to blame for the biggest mistake in the process: suggesting the damned VD system to begin with! But be that as it may, as things now stand I need to dig myself out of this hole before I can do anything else in Kenya regarding which local people there can say “hakuna matata” when I lose more money. In other words I won’t be able to travel to Kenya this year to further work with pastoral training programs and I won’t be able to make any personal donations to keeping the school lunch program that I helped initiate there running. This grieves me significantly, but there are times that I have to accept that –– largely because of mistakes I have made in terms of misjudging who I can trust –– certain things are just beyond my control.

And part of the problem that losing more than a year’s pay draws my attention to is that I cannot continue on with a career that has such a low level of pay to draw from. Things have come dangerously close to the old adage, “I pretend to work and they pretend to pay me,” being literally true. As one of my cleverer students pointed out in her final exam essay this spring, the primary difference between an employee and a slave is that the employee has the functional possibility of quitting an unsuitable job. I now need to see if I do indeed qualify as an employee in this regard, and if it turns out that I am thought of as a slave, I need to try to find a way to escape!

Under the circumstances I am quite willing to do any honest form of work for which an employer would be ready to take on a man of my age, with my particular set of linguistic and academic abilities, in the sort of health I am in, even if they don’t pay an entirely livable wage for such work. I am not proud or squeamish at this point. But one thing I am not willing to do is continue teaching middle school lessons 2-3 hours per day, every day of the week, to the exclusion of any other occupation, for less than a subsistence wage. And at this point there is no reason for me to expect that the middle school’s administration values my work enough to make the adjustments necessary to keep me working there voluntarily. This is now a matter of mutual understanding between myself and the principal there. So effectively that means that, while I am officially on vacation at the moment, in practice I am unemployed already. I honestly have no idea where my next salary is coming from, and when.

The principal of Etelä Tapiolan lukio, has been kind enough to nominally keep me on staff there to co-teach a class one hour a week, just to keep my foot in the door, so to speak, so I can stay in my employee housing for the time being, but I am very seriously looking whatever work I can find at this point. At the same time of course I am trying to double down on finishing my doctoral studies, however much easier said than done that may be under the circumstances.

Overall though I have to admit, I’m perhaps now more than ever in the position of Kris Kristofferson’s most famous lyric: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Though I am a US citizen by birth, I am also a naturalized citizen of a civilized country that actually believes in human rights –– that provides basic health care to all citizens and won’t let me freeze or starve to death, or die for lack of the basic prescription medicines I’m now on, because of my lack of capacity to pay. Beyond that I really don’t own anything that creditors would find it worthwhile to repossess. So in effect I’m confident at least that things really can’t get any worse for me. All I really stand to lose is time –– time during which, under other circumstances, I might have been able to do more good in the world rather than struggling with the uncertainties of my basic subsistence.

Even so, at least for now, life goes on. It remains to be seen where this freedom will lead me, but I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough. For those of you in the habit of praying, please remember to mention me as you do so.



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Filed under Education, Freedom, Purpose, Time

Shoveling… it

I had an ironically beautiful day on Saturday with a bunch of my more religious friends. A friend from church has a hobby farm of sorts, leaning towards the basic ideals of more “sustainable living” and all, but him being about my age, in part due to the aches and pains that come with the aging process, he has been unable to keep up with all of the different spring cleaning issues that have to be dealt with there. As he has done a number of random favors for many of us, and as he has the sort of warm smile that everyone likes to help bring out, the church arranged for about 20 of us to spend the day at his place helping out with some basic chores.

evans farm view

Much of the work I did was, together with others, (carefully) moving old logs and scrap wood around into new piles, burning off some of it, and scything down the weeds that had been growing around where the old wood piles were. Eventually though it came time for me to join the proud teams doing the “real work”: cleaning out the mostly composted sheep manure, thoroughly intermingled with the sheep’s straw bedding, which in a few different sections of the barns and sheds had built up over the course of a couple of years to about waist-high. It had got to the point where that job couldn’t be procrastinated any further because the animals were starting to bang their heads on the ceiling rafters!

By the time I picked up the pitchfork and started to help break up and remove this mass of …it, there was already a strong sense of gung-ho teamwork going among the guys who had spent the whole morning on that task. In fact there were two teams not so subtly trying to out-do each other in the poop scooping process. One team was using a fleet of wheelbarrows; the other, an old trailer of the sort my car can pull. Each team had a de facto self-appointed leader who was barking out instructions. (I was thankful to join into this particular task late especially so as not to slip into that sort of role!) And the leaders were each trying to psych up their teams over how they were doing better than those on the other side.

evans manure dump

Without going into any more personal detail regarding the social dynamics of the day than that, it was just fascinating to watch as religious people got more and more excited and competitive about their capacities to shovel… it.

As this was just a one day gig, with no particular pay or bonuses or long-term status factors riding on it, and as it therefore required a certain sort of odd sense of humor and non-standard set of motivational strategies to get the job done, it seemed that these guys were letting their most primitive competitive instincts, and at the same time their most basic male bonding instincts, run rather wild. I admit, this invites all sorts of comparison with what we religious people tend to do together and why under more “normal” circumstances as well, but I’ll leave that to the reader to contemplate.

In any case, this experience also brought to mind my discussions last week with my cousin in the agriculture industry, who in spite of being an otherwise very decent and respectable sort of guy, has happened to drift into the circles of rural white working class Trump supporters. Suffice to say, he’s spent his life surrounded by more manure than most people can imagine, both literally and figuratively, to the point where he seems to have lost his sensitivity to both. In some ways I can deeply respect him for that very reason, and I feel it would be rather crude and insensitive for me to even try to get him out of all that …it, but on the other hand I hope I can enable him to see the difference between it and non-it again, especially when it comes to the way …it piles up in politics.

Anyway, one huge part of the political mentality my dear cousin is part of is to say that socialism is wrong because it takes away the sense of satisfaction that people get by accomplishing things and thus earning things for themselves.  Or in my cousin’s own words, “Do you not feel better about achieving your own success on your own watch, rather than getting something just because you have a hot breath? I am free to fail and free to succeed every day. That is the beauty of this country.”

When I replied to that by saying that I don’t feel better about achieving things on “my own watch” rather than getting things as a matter of right because I happen to be a living, breathing human being, it seems that my cousin and I hit something of a cultural disconnect. I don’t think he was able to relate to what I was saying. But then watching, and taking part in, all of the …it shoveling on Saturday brought his perspectives to mind again, both in terms of the motivation/reward structure for work and in terms of the pride of accomplishment side of things. So I thought it might be worth writing something here to see if I can bring in some sense of mutual understanding on these issues.

Evans workers

One of the biggest questions in politics and economics is, how can you convince people to work together with each other for the common good – so that everyone comes out better through their cooperation with each other? There are two extremes which we can say really don’t work. One extreme is to split up all proceeds of every joint effort even-Steven, which then, in order to motivate people to do their fair share, requires finding ways to seriously threaten and punish those who don’t do what they’re told. At the other extreme we have radical competition where those who compete most ruthlessly and aggressively can hoard as much of the benefits of the system as they can grab for themselves, leaving both the lazy and those who are simply playing along and taking part on a basic level hurting, with little or nothing to show for it. The former is the risk involved in politics going too far to the left; the latter, when politics drift too far to the right.

Right-wing politicians tend to try to threaten people, like my cousin, with the idea that if those damned “leftists” take charge it will lead to a loss of choice in how much of what sort of work each person has to do. The argument goes that if people are otherwise guaranteed enough to get by on safely, the only way to get them to work harder and cooperate with others in general will be to beat them over the head with various things or throw them in jail if they don’t follow the rules set by some abstract, far away authority figures who are not to be trusted. Beyond that there are those lower class individuals who are not to be trusted because rather than working together with everyone else they’d probably just like to glean the benefits of the system without contributing anything. So we need to find ways of keeping them on a particularly short leash. Let’s just say that in terms of constructing pictures of Marxist monsters and lazy sleaze balls to scare people into voting for them, right-wing populists have proven themselves capable of shoveling an impressive amount of …it.

Left-wing politicians have been far less effective, particularly in the United States, at constructing a fear of imaginary “bad hombres” on the other side. The basic narrative is that those who get to a certain point of privilege — whether or not they got there by playing fair (and usually they haven’t got there by playing fair) — tend to lose track of how the cooperation has to work in practice among those down there picking up the poop with the pitchforks. In order to keep these characters at the top economically from becoming fat, lazy, disconnected and abusive, they need to be required to stay in contact with those on the lower end of society, and to give something back to the others, whose own hard work made their success possible, as well as to those who haven’t been able to properly participate in societal production systems (yet). Part of the government’s basic job is to keep people working together, and that requires keeping those bastards at the top from isolating themselves too far from the rest of society. The true bad guys, according to this narrative, are those who, once they are at the top, refuse to care about or have anything to do with those they “defeated” in the process of getting there. This type of …it can be piled just as high as the right-wing sort, but we haven’t seen that done in quite a while; in US politics probably not since the time of George McGovern.

Between these extremes though there is a broad range of ideological and practical alternatives to consider in terms of how to get the necessary piles of …it properly moved about: how can we positively motivate people to pick up the pitchforks, and how to negatively motivate them in terms of how much of their basic safety and well-being can/should be made contingent on the amount of …it they get shoveled? My cousin’s mileage may differ on these matters, but I strongly believe that in keeping with basic human dignity people should not threatened into shoveling …it, either as the consequence of extreme left or extreme right wing political structures. Human innovation and cooperation have progressed to the point where we can make enough for everyone to live relatively safely and securely, so there isn’t any valid reason to let people and/or their children suffer and die if they can’t prove that they’ve shoveled their fair share of …it.

How do we pay to keep people taken care of? That part can be negotiated, but the important thing is to remember that money is nothing but a complicated set of human agreements by which we find ways of continuing to work together. If monetary systems cease to serve that purpose, they inevitably collapse. So if we want to keep any particular kind of money worth anything, we have to make sure that it serves as a functional, responsible means of distributing the fruits of our collective labors, and that would include demonstrating a collective respect for the human dignity of other people in general. The rest is details.

evans grill

In terms of positive motivations, there’s a lot to be said for allowing people to compete with each other if that’s what they’re into. There’s also a lot to be said for giving people who accomplish more than others extra rewards in terms of finer food or nicer stuff to show off to their friends if they’re so inclined. That being said, going back to the example of our little pitchfork party on Saturday, the lunch, dinner and sauna time afterwards were available to everyone, regardless of how much of …it they forked out of the sheds as we went. Things could have been arranged in such a way that only those who had moved more than X number of barrow loads of …it would be entitled to the finer pieces of meat on the grill, or the nicer cakes for desert, or whatever. It could be argued that such a distribution system would have felt better and would have been more encouraging for those who got the most work done, and would have ensured that they would do an even better job next time. I would disagree. I think it just would have reduced the satisfaction we all experienced in working together and knowing we were doing something good for a dear friend. I don’t think the bratwurst and fruit salad would have tasted any better to me if they would have been a special prize for the amount of …it I shoveled, and frankly I think that those who would have wanted that sort of prize system are probably just a bit childish in that respect.

Evans house

I realize that there’s a difference between professional efforts and weekend volunteer work, but in terms of how we are motivated overall — and in terms of where, if anywhere, threats should figure into the process – I think this is more of a difference in degree rather than a difference in type. The political and economic structure which best enables freedom, which brings out the best in workers, and which most enables people to trust each other in working together is not likely to be the one which has the biggest stick to beat people with if they don’t do as they are told. How masters can get the most mechanical labor out of their slaves for the least investment is a different question, but shifting the form of the question in that direction should in itself show that there is something wrong with that form of thinking. Would you agree, Cuz?


Anyway, this also sort of brings me to the matter that, when it comes to this blog, I haven’t really bothered to shovel much …it here in the past couple years – maybe in part because no one pays me for it, maybe because I’m not so sure how much good my shoveling efforts here do for anyone, maybe because of the limits of my own capacities for shoveling such these days. Whatever the case, once in a while it feels good to get a barrow load or two of …it out into the blogosphere for everyone else to be able to enjoy the smell together with me. If anyone has anything to say about how it might be more effectively shifted or spread around, I’d be happy to hear from you.

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Filed under Economics, Freedom, Human Rights, Philosophy, Politics

What if the order had been reversed…

This is an exercise in fantasy, relating to something that is for many reasons entirely impossible, but still worth thinking about. What if Donald Trump had been elected as president two generations before Adolf Hitler had won the election that made him chancellor of Germany? How much more guilty of civil carelessness would the minority of the German public who considered Hitler to have been “the lesser evil” be? And to what extent could they all be accused of being morally bad people because of this electoral decision?

Of course both Trump and Hitler are products of their own times, and could not realistically have risen in other eras of history and still been the same persons. Two generations before Hitler no conspicuously rich second generation immigrant without political experience but with a rare skill for gaining media attention; based in New York and representing all the evils that city is famous for, but drawing his primary support from the south and the “heartland”; building a campaign around all the things that white men lived in existential fear of; could have realistically took the White House. Something like Trump could only happen in the 21st century. Likewise Hitler could only have risen to power at a time when Germany was failing in its recovery from a world war, and it is highly unlikely that there would be enough left in the aftermath of any future world war for yet another Hitler to rise to power in. Thus it seems impossible to imagine another Hitler arising after Trump. Most impossible though is the idea that the path of influence between them could have been reversed: Trump read Hitler’s speeches and was clearly influenced by them, but it is unimaginable that Hitler would have turned to someone like Trump for inspiration.

But regardless of the impossibility of it, as an exercise in civil conversation between (even tacit) Trump supporters and those who see the sort of disaster that Trump’s sort of politics could portend, let’s imagine what the discussion between a Hitler supporter and an intense Hitler critic in post-Depression Germany would have been like in the time after Hitler had won his major election but before he had properly risen to power… if they furthermore would have had the advantage of looking at Trump’s election in hindsight.

Given the completely unrealistic premise this is based on, I want to try to give both sides a fair and realistic hearing on this. So let’s say that this is an open discussion between Dietrich, an avowed Social Democrat and anti-Hitler campaigner, and Reinhold, an independent who had chosen to vote for the Nazis in the recent election. Let’s randomly say that this discussion would have taken place on March 10, 1933.

D: As much as I respect you as a person, Reinhold, I still find it hard to believe that you could vote for that hemorrhoid Hitler. How could you honestly do such a thing!? Don’t you see what kind of danger you are putting our country into?

R: Dietrich, Dietrich, first of all the election is over a week ago already. Whether you like it or not, Hitler won. Why don’t you just relax and give him a chance to sort things out and see if he can fix the sort of mess that your Social Democrats and the rest of the corrupt old guard have got us into?

D: Why don’t I?! First of all because all of the hate-mongering that Hitler used to wheedle his way into power, and all of those psychotic brown shirts he’s got working for him stand a good chance of destroying everything that we hold dear about our German heritage! He practically makes Donald Trump look reasonable for crying out loud!

R: Ha ha! Heinz’s Law. You lose.

D: What?

R: You know: “As a political discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Trump approaches 1.” It goes with the same premise that whoever mentions Trump first automatically loses the debate.

D: That’s a stupid, ad hoc rule and you know it!

R: Is it really? Come on! You guys on the left have been calling every semi-competent center-right leader since the Bismarck “another Trump”. Face it: that’s a losing tactic.

D: OK, I’ll concede two things here: First of all there have been other elitist, populist hate-mongers since Trump’s time concerning whom Trump’s name has been thrown around a bit too freely. Secondly I admit that, whatever Hitler’s flaws, when it comes down to it no one can be another Trump.

R: Good… so why do I feel like there’s a “but” coming here?

D: There certainly is! The similarities in their campaign styles alone were big enough where the German people should have been able to learn something from the Americans’ mistakes back then!

R: That’s just ridiculous. First of all Trump had no connection at all with the people he was manipulating into voting for him. He was a spoiled little rich boy, not a committed patriot like Hitler. Secondly there really wasn’t any major crisis in the American economy back then. Production and markets were functioning just fine. There was a structural change going on regarding the sort of work that would need to be done in the future, and there was a need for the government to play a more active role in the changeover, but it wasn’t anything like Germany is today. We’ve got a real crisis, not one made up by opportunists to discredit their opposition! Beyond that the Mexicans and Muslims that Trump laid out as the enemies of the people were not in any position of power in their society, or in the world at large. Hitler’s point regarding the Jews is far better grounded. All in all they’re nothing alike!

D:  OK, another point I can grant you: Hitler does seem to be more sincere than Trump was overall. He does seem to have some sort of moral convictions rather than being pure con-artist to the core. But (yes, of course another “but”) that hasn’t stopped him from continuously changing his message to tell people what they want to here and push their particular panic buttons. And furthermore if you take the kind of hatemongering that brought Trump to office and combine it with a sense of sincere dogmatism of conviction about the matter that may make him even more dangerous than Trump. And even though the target of Hitler’s hatred is more thoroughly rationalized, it’s still the same sort of nastiness against other people that Trump was selling. Those Brown Shirts are really in no way morally better than the “Alt-Right” folks who supported Trump.
Now I know that you’re not the sort of person who believes in attacking Jews just because they happen to be born Jewish. I’m not accusing you of being that particular kind of deplorable. What I’m saying is that you really should know better than saying with your vote that you find that sort of policy to be morally acceptable and politically supportable!

R: You seem to be equivocating on whether my voting for Hitler makes me a bad person or not. I guess I’ll just have to live with that. Our country is pretty seriously divided right now, not only from this rather nasty recent election, but from all of the ways that your Social Democrats have been screwing things up over the past 15 years. Of course Hitler was not my first choice, and of course I don’t believe in attacking all Jews for the evils that a small minority of them are doing. But given how screwed up things have become, for basic working people in particular, you can’t really say that leaving the old guard in place or letting Otto Wels and Ernst Thälmann turn this country into some sort of Marxist nightmare would have been viable solutions. Hitler was clearly the lesser evil here.
All that being said, whether you and your leftist friends like it or not, Hitler is now our chancellor. The people have spoken and your leftists lost. So now you really should give him a chance to see if he can follow through on his promises to make Germany great again. Or are you going to join all those putzes who promised to move to Switzerland if the Nazis won? (Good riddance if they do go!)

D: As you know, as was the case with Trump, Hitler and his cronies still got less than a majority of the popular vote. I won’t deny it though: I’m still stunned that they got as much as they did. I honestly thought and hoped that the German people were smarter and more civilized than that; you included. All I can say at this point is that if Hitler gets what he wants then moving to Switzerland could turn out to be an excellent decision.

R: Come on now, Diet! We still have a system of checks and balances in this country. Old man Hindenburg is still in place trying to insure some resemblance of sanity in the system. Hitler and his boys still need to convince the other 2/3 of the Reichstag to go along with it before they do anything too radical. Things can’t really get too bad. So for now let’s just come together as Germans and see what we can do to rebuild this great nation.

D: In many ways I hope you’re right. The scary part is that I’m sure that back in the day Trump supporters were saying the same thing right after he was elected…


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Filed under Ethics, History, Politics, Respectability

The True Miracle of Christmas

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
– John 1:11-13

This Christmas season I’ve been thinking about the whole question of the dogma of the Virgin birth of Jesus, and how important that is to the Christian faith. The most basic question is, what is the basic reason for believing that Jesus was born without his mother ever having had sex with anyone? Besides proving that one’s belief in the Bible narrative is stronger than one’s trust in a scientific understanding of such matters, what might be the point in such a belief?

I don’t toss out the rhetorical jab against scientific thinking in complete cynicism. I have many friends, on line in particular, who consider my faith to be somewhat suspect because I don’t prioritize a doctrine of the Bible’s “verbal plenary inspiration”: essentially the belief that the complete factual flawlessness of the Bible needs to be the starting point for any discussion of Christian belief between believers. This teaching is loosely based on one verse in Paul’s epistles (II Timothy 3:16) but more essentially it is based on a medieval understanding that any rational argument requires some sort of fixed starting point, and that is what the Bible is supposed to provide us with. Belief in the Bible’s reliability in this way was important to medieval monks in the same way that belief in the fixed position of the Earth within the universe, built on a firm foundation placed there by God himself (Psalm 104:5), was important to their attempts to rationally analyze the motions of the planets and stars in the sky. And for Protestants, who tossed aside the foundational function of church councils and papal decrees, this role for the Bible became even more critically important.

Thus one argument for believing in the virgin birth of Jesus is that it goes with the broader collection of things that Christians have historically believed in. Thus the argument would go that to consider oneself a truly believing Christian one must consider every word of the Bible –– especially the New Testament, and within the New Testament especially the message of the Gospels –– to be beyond factual reproach. This would mean that one should never dream of questioning the veracity of Mary’s reported reply to the angel in Luke 1:34. So believing for the sake of believing as a starting point for discussion among Christians has its own relevance and importance… but is there more to it than that?

One huge part of the question has been the idea that there is something essentially “yucky” about sex, and for Jesus to have been a perfect human being he could not have been, like everyone else, the product of such a yucky process. This is not a directly biblical teaching (though it is perhaps implied in some interpretations of I Corinthians 7:7), but it runs very deeply in Christian tradition, particularly in the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo. In his Confessions Augustine makes it clear that as a young man he was deeply troubled by sex, in that he had a very difficult time thinking with his “big head” rather than his (ahem) “little head”, and when he became a believer God delivered him from this “curse”. Thus one of the principle blessings of Christianity, according to Augustine and his followers, was to deliver us from the power of sex. But for those not ready or willing to become completely sexless beings there was always marriage. There the yuckiness of sex could be “redeemed” by its function of making lots of new members for the church.

One of the big questions of the Protestant Reformation was whether this Augustinian perspective on sex could be rejected outright. Besides allowing priests to marry, part of Luther’s basic emphasis seemed to be that sex (within marriage at least) was not merely a regrettably necessary means of procreation, but wonderful gift of God unto itself. From an Augustinian perspective, which the Catholic Church clung to dogmatically at least until the time of World War 2, this sort of perspective opened the door to all sorts of problems. It was only with the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that the Catholic Church started to admit that Protestants might have some legitimate points in these (and other) matters. Shortly after this council the Pope Paul VI declared that as long as sex was only practiced between people who were married for that purpose, only done in a vaginal penetrative way, and not utilizing any “artificial” means of preventing pregnancy, it could be done for its own sake rather than primarily as a means of making babies. But the whole question of how sexlessness relates to Mary’s perfection as the mother of Jesus has not been substantially re-thought since then. Nor has there been a significant Protestant tradition of promoting the beauty and potential for deep spiritual experience within sex that would counter-balance the Augustinian tradition in this respect. For Christians of all sorts with advanced enough English skills to understand the lyrics, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah remains something of a guilty pleasure. Thus Jesus’ mother still needs to be seen as a virgin.

A completely different perspective on the matter has to do with the ancient understanding of the biological workings of sexual reproduction and the role of fatherhood therein. In simple terms the ancients, at least as far back as Aristotle, believed that within each potential mother there was a reserve of some bloody mass that provided the material from which babies could be made, and then there was this milky stuff that came out of potential fathers which contained all the pattern information necessary for baby-making. When this male-determined pattern properly imprinted itself on that bloody mass within the mother-to-be’s uterus the miracle of pregnancy would begin. If this happened in the optimal way it would result in a strong and healthy male child. If the “imprinting” of the sperm upon the bloody stuff was a partial miss, the result could be a female child, or a baby with some other sort of birth defect (the Ancient European perspective, not mine!). If it missed entirely, pregnancy would simply fail to happen. The point was that every sperm was seen as having all of the data necessary for making a baby, and thus the essence of what makes the baby who he or she is was believed to come entirely from the father’s side.

On the basis of this understanding of biology the church fathers who gathered for the second official church council, in Constantinople in 381, added a clause to the Nicene Creed stating that Jesus was “begotten of the Father before all worlds”. In other words the perfect pattern for Jesus, ready to be imprinted onto the bloody stuff with Mary, was already up in heaven with God, fully conscious and ready for action, before the world was made. This was part of the understanding of how Jesus could really be God. From there once this pre-existing and fully conscious pattern was able to sexlessly stamp itself onto the bloody material within Mary the fact of Jesus’ complete humanity and simultaneous complete divinity became a reality. Except we have since discovered that biologically it doesn’t work that way…

I’m still sort of amazed that Gregor Mendel was never tried as a heretic, since his scientific discoveries, published while he was a monk on the payroll of the Catholic Church, totally exploded the reasoning behind this dogma that had been a core teaching of the church throughout the Middle Ages. Maybe it was that they had just got done “rehabilitating” Galileo for daring to point out the church’s mistake in insisting that the Sun revolves around the Earth rather than visa-versa, so they didn’t want to challenge any scientists for a while. Perhaps it was just that the offices of the inquisition had too many other fish to fry at the time. Perhaps they actually never heard of this Czech monk until it was too late and he was already dead and gone. Whatever the case, by proving that fathers and mothers play equal roles in determining the genetic pattern of their offspring, and that this pattern cannot exist prior to the sperm uniting with the material within the mother, he completely undermined part of the core theological reasoning behind belief in the virgin birth, and he was never made to pay for this arrogance.

But then what remaining idea could there be for believing in the virgin birth if we dismiss the reliability of belief for its own sake as , the idea of sex being inherently yucky and fatherhood consisting of imprinting pre-existing patterns on stuff in the mother? Speaking strictly for myself, while having a bit of residual respect for Christian tradition for tradition sake in spite of its epistemological limits, the main point remaining in the idea of the virgin birth is Jesus’ message of completely breaking with the tradition of alpha male power. To state it in the sort of terms that have recently become acceptable as basic “locker room talk,” Jesus was not the heir of a long line of “pussy grabbing winners.” In fact he completely rejected everything this tradition stood for. This is the true miracle of Christmas; so miraculously unexpected that many today are still unable to conceive of it as such.

The Jews, at Jesus’ time in particular, were looking for a sort of ultimate macho man Messiah, who could do like Gideon and mobilize a tiny army, against all rational odds, to overcome all the oppression that the people of JWHW faced. The rest was details. The fact that Gideon managed to have 70 sons from his “legitimate” wives, and more on the side (Judges 8:30-31) went with the territory. Conquering heroes were entitled to all the women they wanted. Why wouldn’t the same apply to the long expected Messiah?

That is not to say there weren’t some mixed messages involved the Jews’ Messianic expectations. The “hymn of the suffering servant” in Isaiah 53 in particular seriously messed with their testosterone-stoked images of a conquering hero. But even Isaiah painted this suffering Messiah as being a bit of a bad ass when he had to be: ready to bring revenge against all those who had made life miserable for the Jews. Isaiah laid this out in chapter 61, where the second verse says that the Messiah’s job is “to proclaim… the day of vengeance.” Then along comes Jesus, who the local folks hoped might be the sort of conquering leader they were looking for. Everyone is stoked for a major declaration as this local boy goes into the synagogue and takes his turn to read the worship text, which happens to be the very portion of Isaiah which tells of the vengeance proclamation. Everyone waits with bated breath he reads the part leading up to it, about good news to the poor and recovery of sight to the blind and all that, but then right when he gets to the part they were most interested in –– the vengeance part –– he rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant and sits down!

Jesus went on to teach the sort of stuff we have recorded in the Sermon on the Mount: All the people he regarded as blessed were those who alpha male competitors would label as losers. Rather than taking vengeance, love your enemies. Chill out and trust God the way the grass of the field does. How is this guy supposed to free us from our Roman oppressors the way a messiah is supposed to do? Turns out that isn’t at all what he is about. He’s rather come to free us of our own need to think of ourselves as “winners”.
Jesus’ point is to set the whole question of “being a winner” aside; to completely adopt the form of a servant so that his followers can do the same. He was deeply passionate about going after those who misrepresented God as a nasty, demanding ogre, or who tried to turn a sleazy profit off of people’s desire to know God; but for everyone else the point of his teaching was for people to accept forgiveness in spite of their failures, and to pass that forgiveness forward in terms of forgiving others. As his “beloved disciple” John summarized the matter in the introduction to his gospel, quoted from at the beginning of this piece, Jesus gave us the right to be God’s children, but this is completely not a matter of passing on the sort of macho heritage based on the power of (sexual) aggression that Gideon and company represented: “not of blood [the presumedly biologically female bit], nor of the will of the flesh [the presumedly biologically male bit] nor of the will of man [the macho aggression factor], but of God.” In other words John is saying that God gives those who are truly his people the capacity to act outside of the control of their “selfish genes”; to live a life not programmed by their “pussy grabbing” urges.

This was not written as a description of Jesus, however, but of his followers, to whom he gave the right to become children of God. John’s point here was not to emphasize Jesus’ supernatural heritage, nor his mother’s sexual purity, but the essence of his followers’ relationship with God. The core question is whether we are ready to live beyond our urge to associate ourselves with the alpha male thing that Jesus so definitively set aside. What do we need to believe about Jesus and his biological origins to live according to the sort of values that John points us towards? Then on the other side of the question, for those millions of professing Christians who are using that label primarily as a means of advancing their macho power interests, what good does a profession of belief in Mary’s virginity (either at the strategic moment, or perpetually thereafter) do them before God?

I do not claim to have special access to God’s own perspective on such matters, but the more I consider these issues the less worried I become about being accepted as sufficiently orthodox by those who set out to conquer in Jesus’ name.

Meanwhile my wish for the season is this: may the true miracle of Christmas –– the defeat of the alpha male drive thing within each of us –– come into the lives of all those who truly wish to be God’s children, towards the end that someday there truly may be peace on earth, and among God’s people in particular.

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Filed under Epistemology, Holidays, Sexuality, Skepticism

Post-Election Perspectives

Though it is not a subject that I relish, I feel a certain obligation to say something about my personal perspectives on the US presidential election this past week. I actually started to write an essay on this last Thursday, but as if the week wasn’t going bad enough already I lost three pages worth of text on the matter when my computer crashed on me. (Jesus saves. Sometimes I forget to.) In any case maybe that is for the best; maybe another few of days’ worth of calm reflection on the matter has given me a clearer head. We’ll see here.

I don’t believe that I have anything to say which is more insightful or profound than the comments of those who actually get paid to prognosticate and pontificate about such matters, but because I have been fairly public about my perspectives on the matter I believe that I owe it to my friends and those who follow my texts to state for the record how I think and feel about the events of the past week.

To start with I really wish to thank all of my friends “on this side of the pond” who have been supportive in recognizing this event for what it is: a tragedy on par with 9/11, destined to have profound negative consequences all around the world. The primary differences are that this tragedy will take many months before people start dying because of it and it has happened because of millions of Americans chose for it to happen. Even so, my friends and colleagues here have, if anything, been in a deeper state of shock than I have, and thus they have been particularly sympathetic and supportive in this difficult time.

And in fair exchange for the moral support that they have been offering me, it is somewhat my duty to try to answer the question that keeps getting directed to me: “How the ______ did this happen?” The short answer is that the US education system is fundamentally broken, people there have not learned basic critical thinking skills, they are easily manipulated and taken advantage of, and Trump demonstrated a mastery at taking advantage of this situation. But obviously it’s more complicated than that, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. In light of a few days’ intense public consideration of the matter I think we can point out a few guilty parties in particular:

  1. Hillary’s enablers: After the 2008 Democratic primary, won by Obama, there seems to have been a major de facto deal between at least the Clintons and Obamas, and the other major players in the Democratic Party, saying that first it would be Barack’s turn to try to run the country; Bill and Hillary would help raise support for him and he would give Hillary responsibilities within his administration to help her look good. Then, when his turn was over, he and Michelle would do everything they could to help Hillary get the job. Along these lines there seems to have been a core group who were operating on the assumption that she was simply entitled to the position, grossly underestimating just how repulsive this idea was to millions of Americans. Nor is it fair to say that the repulsiveness of this idea was, for most of her opponents, based on her femininity, such as it is.

    It may or may not have been part of that plan to enable Hillary for Bill to have reportedly spoken with Trump about his idea of seeking the Republican nomination weeks before Trump announced his candidacy, but it would have strategically made sense. Trump could be the loose cannon on the Republicans’ deck that could knock out their more capable candidates and eventually sink their ship. And if he actually got the nomination he could make such a monster of himself that any sane person (which obviously would not include the hard-core Republican base) would naturally vote for his old friend Hillary.

    But somewhere along the line the Donald started thinking he could actually win and he was going to play this reality TV game using whatever brutal strategy he could find. Thus, as in all good horror stories, the monster escaped the control of his creators, eventually leading to their doom. But now this monster –– with no particular diplomatic skills, self-restraint or moral compass –– is going to be in charge of most of the world’s military equipment –– together with an economic system that, far more thoroughly than any other on earth, is based on mindless unsustainable consumption. Hillary is far from the only loser here, and those who assumed that she was entitled to be president must accept a significant amount of the blame for this situation.

  2. The GOP hate-mongering machine: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but sometime within my lifetime, before I was old enough to vote, Republican strategy shifted from working to maintain the privileges of “old order” industrialists to fueling resentment of those who “didn’t deserve” to have their basic human rights defended –– the sort of rights that Democrats were (again, in theory) championing. Suffice to say, a major part of Reagan’s appeal was in terms of “dog whistle” racism: sending messages at a frequency where only racists could hear them, telling people that government needed to be made smaller, because government programs were enabling “welfare queens” and “lazy bucks” to take unfair advantage of “honest, hard-working folk”, with certain unstated skin-color assumptions being inherent in each category. And if those forms of resentment against the “others” weren’t motivation enough, a new religiously oriented branch of the party, going by the name The Moral Majority back then, worked to stir people up to fear abortion-promoting feminists, “homosexual culture” and those were preventing prayer in schools.

    Over the past three decades the strategy of fueling resentment for all of those things has remained a constant in Republican identity, but never has it been so explicit as with Donald Trump. Trump did not invent anything new in this regard. He merely approached the system like any strategic psychopath would approach a game he intended to win on reality TV. Trump realized early on that the active base of the GOP was old white guys who don’t like the way the world is changing, with more and more power going to women, “perverts” and various sorts of brown people. In order to win, Trump merely needed to embody their resentments and make them believe that he alone could put them back in charge of things. Alienating pretty much everyone else –– women, darker-skinned folks, those of other religions, those with minority identities in terms of their sexuality –– was an acceptable risk as part of his overall game strategy.

    To get the end game to work he needed to stoke up the public hatred for his opponent with a creative combination of lies, rumors, innuendoes and exposure of embarrassing secrets (with a little bit of help from his friends in the FBI and the former KGB) so that a large enough minority would consider her to be a bigger danger to the country than him, and then broaden his appeal to those with religious justifications for their hatred through reaching out to the heirs of the Moral Majority system. It was a high risk strategic gamble, but in the end it worked for him.
    Republicans are pretending to be happy with this situation because in theory he’s now their monster, but they pretty much know that they can’t control him and they’re actually not doing a very good job of pretending that they’re happy about things.

  3. And of course, the dysfunctional American education system: As I pointed out in my last blog entry here, Dilbert creator Scott Adams pointed out early on in the race that Trump’s “complete disregard for facts and reality” gave him a significant strategic advantage over those who, through their previous work as lawyers, were more restricted by these troublesome limitations. There is actually plenty of supporting evidence for Adams’ analysis, but it points in turn to one of two uncomfortable conclusions: either vast numbers of Trump supporters cannot tell the difference between reality and its opposite, or they don’t care about the whole idea of truth. Either way this indicates that the American system of public primary and secondary education has not been doing its job properly.

    I’m not sure if I as to whether or not I would agree with the late George Carlin about this being part of a conspiracy to keep the workers/consumers under the control of those who own the system: “They want obedient workers […] people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork, and just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs…” But it might be.

    Is that why so many couldn’t tell that Trump’s campaign had nothing to do with facts and reality, or why they didn’t consider facts and reality to be particularly important things for a US president to have a clear grasp of? Whatever the case regarding factors of racism, sexism, hate-mongering and bigotry of all sorts that Trump used to appeal to the GOP base, to me the problem that the election of Trump as President most disturbingly demonstrates is that over the past 60 years there has not been an education system in place that would equip people to critically listen to truth-challenged people like politicians and salesmen, and determine whether or not their speech is constrained by “facts and reality”.

    I find it mildly encouraging that the younger and more highly educated voters were, the less likely they were to vote for Trump this time around, but that doesn’t solve the basic problem that so many of all age groups still can’t draw these sorts of distinctions. But, I must admit, part of that is the school teacher in me talking.

It’s hard to say which of the above groups, if any, will learn anything from their mistakes in this process. This is where the steps of grieving need to come into play for all of them: All of them are in some level or another of denial still at this point, at least when it comes to their own culpability for what is about to happen. Anger is being thoroughly expressed by protesters who presumably voted for Democrats already; Republican anger at not being able to control their monster and watching him destroy their country will probably show up sometime next spring. Bargaining, the stage where they will begin to accept part of their culpability and start making promises to be better if the new reality is undone, will be seen in the mid-term elections at the latest. Depression, feeling as though there’s no point in even trying to fix things, won’t be far behind. Constructive acceptance of the mistakes collective mistakes which led to this tragedy, and the need to correct them and move beyond them, might come rather soon thereafter, or it might take many years for the US. That far ahead I don’t think anyone can see yet.

But are things really that bad? With all of the constitutional checks and balances and the bureaucratic momentum of Washington being harder to turn than the Titanic, how much damage can one reality TV character do as president? Obama wasn’t able to get very much of his agenda through. Why should we be afraid that Trump, a total political novice, will be able to make bad changes where Obama was not able to make good ones?

I respect the optimism of many of my friends who take such a position, and in many regards I share their hope for a less dismal future than how things now look. I also believe that, regardless of how this plays out, most of the world’s population, and most people in the United States for that matter, will survive and keep going with life as usual regardless. I also recognize that some sorts of damage that Trump will inevitably do will not be easily quantifiable for many years to come. So while his administration’s contribution to the increase of greenhouse gasses globally, for instance, may be the final straw in the death of the Great Barrier Reef, or the cause of storms that finally make Florida unlivable, directly proving the case against his administration will not be possible for the current generation of researchers; it will fall to his victims in generations to come. But while some things will be fine, and others will appear to be fine for quite a while, I believe that Trump’s presidency, even in the most optimistic scenario, will lead to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of unnecessary deaths around the world in the short term, together with an intensified denial of basic human rights for many of those whose lives are impacted by American military and economic power. Lest I be justly accused of melodramatic exaggeration (what Trump likes to call “hyperbole”), let me unpack the ways in which I see this happening.

  1. The end of the ACA: It is fairly self-evident that “Obamacare” will be repealed by a Republican president, senate and House of Representatives within hours of their coming together. If they don’t they will be political toast. It is equally obvious that replacing this program with some adequate means of ensuring that poor and even middle class people have regular access to health care, regardless of “pre-existing conditions” won’t be happening under any Republican administration. It is a fantasy at best; an outright intelligence-insulting piece of absurd propaganda at worst. Exactly how many lives the Affordable Care Act has been saving annually is uncertain, but it is clearly in the 5-digit range. Therefore it is somewhat inevitable that in cancelling this program a Trump presidency will cost hundreds of thousands of American lives in the area of healthcare alone.
  2. Escalating the War on Terror: Trump’s rhetorical tactic for addressing the challenges of dealing with ISIS, Libya, Al Qaeda and the like has basically been to get people excited about “bombing the shit out of them” and then torturing suspected militants and their family members. For those terrorist leaders trying to motivate young people to sacrifice their lives for the cause of fighting against “the great Satan” represented by the United States this is music to their ears! It reinforces everything they’ve been telling kids about the US being an inherently warlike people who are out to destroy Islam –– a threat worthy of sacrificing their lives to stop! In other words (David Bowie’s words, to be precise) intensified military attacks based on de-humanizing Muslims globally amount to “putting out the fire with gasoline.” If there was any way for Americans to help motivate Muslim young people to join radical extremist movements, it was electing Trump as president. If he actually starts following through on his anti-Muslim campaign promises it will throw still more gasoline on the flames.

    In truth this is an area where Obama and Clinton don’t exactly have clean hands. During the time of the Obama presidency drone strikes have actually killed more people than died in the 9/11 attacks. The difference is that if Trump were then to stick with his campaign rhetoric by scaling these programs up, rather than scaling them down as the Democrats have been suggesting –– no longer being so “surgical” about it –– we might be talking about mere hundreds of extra deaths per year to start with. But once again the US would be (in the words of David Petraeus this time) “making new enemies faster than we can kill them off”. It wouldn’t take long for the death rates from this sort of conflict to snowball into the thousands, or higher. Nor will escalating the conflict bring down the number of people being continuously killed and displaced in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and the surrounding territory, if anyone is still under that sort of illusion.

  3. Freeing Putin (and other non-Muslim global aggressors) from fear of retaliation: It should no longer be a secret that Vladimir Putin would like to see himself as the restorer of Russian greatness to what it was during the peak of Soviet power during the Cold War era. The idea of being the new Stalin doesn’t seem to bother him one bit; in fact he seems to relish it. Nor does Donald Trump seem to be bothered by this prospect. In fact he seems rather eager to compare himself with Putin, whom he sees (or claims to see) as a better, stronger leader than Obama. And for Trump from there to call into question how far the US, under his leadership, would be ready to honor its obligations to NATO certainly didn’t help matters.

    So how far will Putin be able to get in trying to rebuild the Soviet empire before NATO, with or without the United States, starts to react? Once he is done chewing what he’s already bitten off –– making sure that Russian influence is secure in Syria –– Ukraine and Georgia are likely to be the next items on Putin’s shopping list. For those of us farther north along the border this is good news: it is likely to take longer than four years before we have a serious risk of a shooting war with Russia around the Baltic Sea. Meanwhile it remains to be seen how many in former Soviet republics end up dying because of Putin’s emboldened aggression on account of having his would-be soul mate in the White House.

    It also remains to be seen how many other right-wing nationalist strongman wannabes will start popping up around the world in this sort of atmosphere. If they are Muslims, if they have strategic assets that American businesses want, or if they smell too socialist for the American right then Trump might spontaneously decide send in the Marines a few times. But as long as they are lighter-skinned non-Muslims, saying that they just need to expand their “room to live” into neighboring countries (Hitler’s term, but with echoes in 19th century American history), perhaps killing off or pushing aside a local tribe or two which they consider to be in the way, the US will probably have little to say about it.  Not that the US should always be the world’s self-declared global police force, but when it comes to working for peace in the world there’s a lot to be said for standing for principles and honoring treaties. Then again, Trump never promised to work for peace –– quite to the contrary in fact.

  4. Upending the global economic order: Besides the directly military industrial stuff Trump could try to escalate, his brash talk about re-negotiating trade deals in itself could get massive numbers of people killed. Unlike all of the private sector bankruptcies that he has been through, when you gamble with a nation’s financial management and lose it’s not just a matter of the bank coming and taking away some of your favorite gold-plated toys. He doesn’t seem to realize this.

    The worst case scenario is that the smell of protectionism and Trump’s refusal to honor standing international agreements could lead to a breakdown in the way international trade is monetized. Uncertainty over if they will ever get paid for the stuff they are making for Americans could make our current trading partners simply stop making that stuff, and/or boycotting the US Dollar as the contract currency of international business. That could easily snowball into a full blown global recession, if not a catastrophic depression. If that happens it doesn’t take long before vulnerable people stop getting necessary food and medicine. Guess what starts happening from there. Massive numbers of people start dying, with no news cameras there to capture it.

Is Trump the new Hitler? In terms of the ultimate war and destruction that he is likely to cause, probably not. The historical situation is considerably different now, and as has been pointed out by some considerably more leftist than me, no one does Hitler like Hitler. But that being said, I believe the similarities between Trump’s campaign and the rise of the Nazis share enough similarities where any scholarly analysis of the dynamics of the latter will inevitably be quite applicable to the former; and no one who has been involved in the former has any grounds left morally critiquing those who were involved in the latter.

But as I was saying, even if Trump’s presidency does result in millions of unnecessary deaths around the world, most of us should be able to survive this troubling time in relatively good shape. I am hopeful that, all things being relative, the human cost of Americans’ disturbing choice will still be minimal. There is also a fairly strong hope that all of the policy ideas that he floated to get the support of the GOP base actually, like his boasts of having committed gross sexual harassment, have no truth value to them whatsoever. The KKK plans to do everything in their power to hold him to his campaign promises, but they are unlikely to succeed at it. Trump’s word of honor has never been particularly binding in any of his other ventures, so why should he suddenly start worrying about it now? Maybe he will turn his back on all his supporters, get some serious professional help, and try to actually govern sensibly. I’m not counting on it, but it is a possibility. And so long as that remains a possibility I’m not panicking.

What bothers me most is the number of white professing Evangelical Christians who ignored the warnings of leaders like Russell Moore and Albert Mohler and dived into supporting Trump’s hateful message anyway. This was especially disturbing when some who I really want to respect went as far as posting things that they knew were out and out falsehoods or blatant expressions of racism, but they posted them anyway out of blind enthusiastic support for “their team”. (The clipping that this link exposes in particular kept showing up on the home pages of acquaintances that I would have thought were more intelligent or would have more integrity than that.) While it has been pointed out that, besides being perhaps the biggest electoral upset of all time, this election will go down in history as the one time when the results of a US election were influenced through the combined efforts of the FBI, the (former) KGB, the KKK and the NRA. Yet the acronymed group which may have had the greatest influence in this matter, and the one most likely to go through a crisis of legitimacy if/when things start going south for the Trump presidency, is the NRB: America’s National Religious Broadcasters’ association. After this debacle it will be hard for them to claim that they stand for any other principles than staying as much in power as possible at any cost, finding “sinful” scapegoats as a simple approach to complex problems, and believing that Jesus can magically fix things for them when they mess them up.

Does that mean then that I consider all Trump voters to be “deplorable” people? No. I’m quite sure that my own mother, who I still love very dearly, voted for Trump this time around, and as grieved as that makes me, I certainly don’t deplore her for it. What I would say is that anyone who voted for Trump this time is necessarily suffering from some combination of hopelessness, willful ignorance, a lack of basic critical thinking skills, a lack of moral commitment to the concept of truth, a tendency towards naïve nostalgia, some form of old fashioned bigotry and/or a tendency towards scapegoating. How many of those they are suffering from, and to what degree with each of these disturbances is obviously an individual question. But whatever the individual case may be, I don’t believe that anyone could have voted for Trump without suffering from more than one of these disorders, and I consider all of them to be deeply problematic as matters of political judgement.

isaiah-trumpettesBut rather than labeling them all as monsters the point is to consider how they got that way, how widespread these problems are in the rest of the world, and what can be done to fix them. Maybe they can’t be fixed, but those of us who still want to leave a better world for our children and grand-children, and other members of future generations that we care about, are duty bound to try at least.

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Filed under Philosophy

Guacamole substitute choices



One night last week, as I was leaving from meeting with some old friends at a bar (while staying entirely sober myself, so as to drive legally) I realized that I didn’t have any milk at home for having with breakfast. As it happened there was a little convenience store of Finland’s K-Market chain just down the street from the bar, so I took a quick buzz over there to pick up a few basics.

By way of cultural background, Finland has two major domestic retailers for foodstuffs and basic household supplies: the K-shop chain and the S-shop chain. In many small towns you have just two competing grocery stores, one representing each conglomerate. In both of the shopping malls close to my apartment there is a section for groceries with a large S-chain supermarket (named Prisma) on one side of the main aisle and a large K-chain supermarket (named Citymarket) on the other side. Between them they don’t quite have a monopoly, but they pretty much dominate the market. For various historical reasons if I have to choose between the two I tend to go with S-shops, but I don’t religiously shop at either, and I don’t hold a “preferred customer card” for either as a matter of principle: When it comes to groceries I’m a registered independent.

In any case, as happens once in a while, I found myself in a little K-Market. I found the milk and sundries that I was looking for easily enough but when it came to addressing the munchies I had developed while sitting in the bar most of what I might have found tempting was either out of stock or way over-priced. That’s when I happened to notice a jar labelled in Finnish simply as “Green Dip Sauce”…

The style of the jar was of the sort which K-markets and S-markets, and all of their smaller competitors, use to sell different varieties of generic imitation Mexican chip dip. Such products tend to come in three basic varieties: tomato-based, cheese substitute-based and imitation avocado-based. In bigger shops you can also find the tomato variety at least in the further variations of mild, medium and hot, though those designations are very relative to the Finnish palate. In fact there’s nothing especially authentic or Mexican about any of them, but as something to dip cheap corn chips in to keep your mouth and fingers busy while studying, driving or watching TV, they sort of work… most of the time.

With that in mind this “Green Dip Sauce” sparked my curiosity. It was clear what it was imitating, but nowhere on the front label did it contain the words “Mexican”, “avocado” or “guacamole,” even with the qualifier of “-style”. As it was moderately priced as such things go, and as I had a pretty bad case of munchies to deal, with I went ahead and bought it anyway.

Let me further confess here that such things are something of a guilty pleasure for me –– though in fact I don’t feel all that guilty about them and I actually don’t get that much pleasure out of them. Even so, I know that they aren’t really “good for me” or all that sustainable as consumer choices. At best they help me procrastinate eating “real food” and perhaps reduce the amount of “real food” I need to consume as part of my daily routines. It’s sort of a “for what it’s worth” question, which for me isn’t that much.

Real guacamole, on the other hand, is a fine “real food” for me to indulge in every now and again. Real guacamole –– the sort “so authentic that Donald Trump would build a wall around it” as that Mexican restaurant in Norway advertises –– should be made up of about half avocado mass, with the rest of its composition being a combination of tomato, onion, dairy products and spices. As long as the things you dip in it or season with it are relatively healthy (i.e. not corn chips) guacamole can be a valuable part of a healthy, balanced diet. Once in a great while I take the trouble to mix up a batch of it for myself at home. You can also buy some pricier gourmet varieties of pre-mixed guacamole here, which are pretty close to authentic, but to be honest with you I’m rarely ready to dish out the premium price for such. If I was stricter about eating healthy I would avoid such guacamole substitutes entirely, but I yam what I yam.

Yet the dip that I picked up that evening wasn’t even overtly pretending to be guacamole. Later reading the fine print on the label and comparing it to that on a jar of “Tex Mex Guacamole” from the S-market, I found that whereas the latter had only 6% avocado, this “green dip sauce… containing peppers, onions, cheese and avocado” had an actual avocado percentage of 0.7! At that level my ex-girlfriend, who is mildly allergic to avocado, could probably eat it without having any adverse reactions whatsoever!

At that point I effectively realized, this product was like the Donald Trump of snack foods. Its artificial color came from a completely different side of the spectrum, but other than that, the more I thought about it the stronger the analogy seemed to be. I guess I need to unpack that for you.

The Donald has become one of two products for people to choose between within his particular product group. The fact that there aren’t more choices available is a significant problem unto itself. In both American politics and the Finnish grocery distribution system both of competing operators seem to show little concert for product quality, assuming (for the most part rightly) that consumers can’t really tell the difference between authentic ingredients and cheap by-products used as fillers. But things have now come to the point where the choice is between a product that pretends to be somewhat authentic (Hillary, or the S-markets’ “guacamole”) and a product that is honest enough not even to pretend to be authentic (Donald, or the K-markets’ “green dip sauce”).

What, in terms of this analogy, would the real “avocado” be? In short, the democratic ideal. Democracy is theoretically designed to prevent those who own the most stuff from using their advantage to determine how the less economically advantaged are going to live. When it comes to how the government is run and how the basic rules of society are determined, in theory the rich man’s interests are no more important than the poor man’s interests: everyone’s vote counts equally, and thus no aristocratic minority can tell the less advantaged majority how they are going to live. The concept of a republic in turn stipulates that no royalty or oligarchy ––traditional or newly self-appointed –– is entitled to dominance over their country’s government affairs. Regardless of which word you use, in theory the principle is the same: it is the interest of the majority, organized within constitutional principles of “justice for all”, that determines how a government is to be run.

Well, fairly obviously in the case of American politics these days, neither presidential candidate has much of that sort of “avocado” in them. Ms. Clinton has got richer and built a stronger personal power base through insider favoritism and using the status quo power structures to her personal advantage than any other “public servant” in living memory. No matter how you feel about the good and/or harm she has done during her political career, and how much personal remuneration you feel she is justly entitled to, I don’t think the way she has played the system to her own personal advantage can be denied. It takes far more faith in femininity, or in humanity in general, than I have to believe that she honestly stands for the good of the people above and beyond promoting her own prejudices and selfish interests. If the generic “guacamole” from S-Markets here contains approximately 6% actual avocado, I’d say that could be a fairly accurate estimation of how much authentic public interest Ms. Clinton contains in matters that don’t serve her own personal interests.

It’s easy to see why many would be so passionately opposed to such a person leading the nation that they would choose whatever candidate most powerfully embodies their resentments in this regard. So it should come as no surprise that so many have gravitated towards a candidate whose campaign has been based more on hate-mongering, alpha-male posturing and naked personal ambition than any potential world leader since World War II. (A close second to Trump by those standards would be his soul mate, Vladimir Putin, but that’s beside the point.) Thus the mentality that anything must be better than Clinton has led to her political rivals marketing of a product that contains less than a quarter the minuscule amount of authentic public interest that Ms. Clinton has!

Representing Trump as the “lesser evil” in this election is, to me, as absurd as buying “green dip sauce” because you believe that it is “healthier” and “less artificial” than the competing “guacamole”! There is little credible evidence that he contains more than the smallest possible trace amounts of the sort of public interest we should be looking for in a president. Those who would attribute such interest to him are demonstrating but one thing: Trump is more intelligent than they are.

However the bigger issue is for us to consider is how, in terms of this analogy, we might get the United States onto something which more closely resembles a healthy diet. Given the woeful state of American education in social sciences and basic thinking skills in particular, maybe the country deserves such a completely junk food choice –– though tragically the rest of the world will have to live with this choice as well. Is there something we can do about this?

Going back to matter of green dips, in taking care of my own health it would be better for me not to dip my chips in either of the artificial alternatives available. Neither one offers the health benefits of consuming the “good fats” contained in avocados. If people here were to stop buying both forms of commonly available guacamole substitute, the conglomerates might simply reach the conclusion that people don’t really care for avocado flavored things in general, and they might pull all products representing themselves as avocado-based off of their shelves. But like, so what? I might actually be healthier for it. Likewise when it comes to the choice before American voters, though there is a clear difference between the products, the still greater discrepancy is still between either candidate and the standards that we should ideally be holding our politicians to. In those terms voting for either of the given alternatives seems to do more to condone a system that gives us such pathetic choices than it does to claim responsibility for our health and our future. Maybe we need to refuse to vote for either.

But here the analogy starts to break down a bit. It is pretty much self-evident that we will be force fed one of these two artificial alternatives. Furthermore, if the major political parties see that people aren’t voting in elections the equivalent to “taking the product off the market” for them is not to stop wielding authority, but to stop even pretending to care about the will of the people; pursuing their naked power interests with even greater impunity. Dismissing all pretense that a nation is governed according to the will of its people is the exact recipe for a shift to overt Fascism. We really do not want to see the United States go there!

What if we, by analogy, show the conglomerates that we are willing to defy their power by buying higher quality products from other distributors? In other words what if we vote for third party candidates as a way of sending a message to the big two? Could that work? Perhaps, though this year I’m having my doubts. The closer you look, the harder it is to take either the Libertarian or Green Party candidates as anything resembling healthy alternatives. Yet even so, the more votes which are actually cast this year for those other than the two-party alternatives, the greater the chance is that one or both of these major parties will wake up enough to start adding more genuine public interest into their products. No, I don’t consider that chance to be particularly strong in any case, but perhaps it is worth trying at least.

Given the trace amounts of arsenic that Trump as a candidate has been recently shown to contain (figuratively speaking), in terms of boasting of practicing criminal sexual harassment, it seems more likely that we’ll be faced with Ms. Clinton as part of our political diet for the next few years, though I don’t want to underestimate the stupidity of my countrymen enough to dismiss the risk that Trump could still win. That leaves many of us with a difficult decision: Is it more important to make sure that, in spite of ignorant prejudices of many of our countrymen, a toxic candidate with no redeeming moral values does not inadvertently become president; or is it more important to send a message to the establishment parties that these sorts of candidates with their near complete lack of concern for people’s best interests and the good of the nation, are unacceptable to us as citizens? I don’t really have a good answer on that one.

All that being said, there are three public statements about the race by American jesters of different sorts that I particularly appreciate:

Scott Adams:
“Keep in mind that a big part of Trump’s persuasive genius is a complete disregard for facts and reality.”

Penn Jilette:
“There are two things that I always believed about modern politics:
1. Everyone who had ever run for major office was smarter than me.
2. There was no one worse than Hillary Clinton.
Both of those things have been disproven by Donald Trump.”

Andy Borowitz:
“Stopping Trump is a short-term solution. The long-term solution, and it will be more difficult, is fixing the educational system that has created so many people ignorant enough to vote for Trump.”

So, my dear American friends, please follow your conscience in voting next month, trying to do what you can to help the country, without being entirely stupid about it. And may God save us from what, largely through the influence of my fellow Evangelical Christians, the United States seems to have become.


Post Script: The empty jar of “guacamole style” dip, containing just 3.7% avocado, that I had at home, which I used for comparison when I started writing this actually did not come from an S-market, but from the Lidl chain. For purpose of the operative analogy  here that would make it something like the Gary Johnson of guacamole substitutes. On more careful examination I found that the S-chain of grocery stores sells a generic product which claims to be actual guacamole, containing 6%  real (Peruvian) avocado according to its content specifications. I have now corrected the above text accordingly. I wish to formally apologize to any representatives of Prisma and/or associated business for exaggerating the artificiality of their product in the previous version of this article.

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Filed under Change, Education, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion

Recovering from the Fall

Returning after a long time away from this blog, I have decided to take up a particularly religious theme that I have been discussing with friends, but which I want to make a more complete statement about. Those looking for easily accessible teenage level philosophical ideas may want to skip this one. My point in this essay is to get those who believe in the Devil to be careful how they apply that belief in their politics.


Most of my friends on the east side of the Atlantic know me as something of a political moderate. Most of those on the west side seem to think of me as more of a political liberal. This would have to do with the fact that I consider the priority of politics to be for people to find ways to work together –– across tribal, religious, economic and other cultural barriers –– to insure respect for all people as people. The basic term for this priority is “human rights”. It further classifies me as a “liberal” in American terms that I don’t happen to believe that the right to equip oneself to kill other people is a higher priority than the right to education, basic medical care and public service protection from prejudicial abuse for instance, but that is another essay.

I say all that as basic background to why I am not disposed to begin with to support American right wing causes in general, and the current GOP identity in particular. That being said, I have many acquaintances, and even a few friends, who remain existentially committed to a Republican political identity as something they consider to be part and parcel of their Christian faith. Previously I considered such people to be merely deceived by those who came to power together with Ronald Reagan’s struggle against the principles of human rights in the name of “Judeo-Christian morality” back in the 80s. Most of those who bought into this thereafter became victims of cognitive dissonance in terms of their party identity. This year, however, the absurdity of believing that to be a good Christian is to be a Republican has become so overwhelming obvious that I believe any genuinely sincere person of at least semi-normal intelligence should at least be aware of profoundly disturbing problems with attempts to harmonize their party standard-bearer’s positions with anything resembling the teachings of Jesus. Again though, another essay.

Under these circumstances I have recently been confronted by a particularly novel excuse for supporting the US Republican party: “Hillary Clinton is literally demonic, and in order to fight against the forces of Satan one must vote Republican!” As absurd as that may sound, former candidate Ben Carson has made this the focus of his justification for supporting Donald Trump. To make it clear to those defending Carson why I fundamentally disagree with this justification for the attack on Democrats it is necessary to go into some theological detail.

The key to that position is to associate Ms. Clinton with the 1960s social activist Saul Alinsky, who close to the end of his life included an epigram with reference to Lucifer in Rules for Radicals, a book about subverting status quo political power structures. Alinsky was a cultural Jew who didn’t believe very strongly in any supernatural powers whatsoever, but he believed that subverting status quo powers in general was a good thing, and he considered Lucifer to be the ultimate mythological symbol of that principle. As it happens, Hillary Rodham, towards the end of her “Goldwater girl” phase, wrote a respectful academic research paper about Alinsky’s strategic thinking (which holds hints that operatives from many different political persuasions have found useful in their attempts to bring about change through protest, but that too is another essay). From there the argument goes that everything that Hillary has stood for since is a matter of devil worship inspired by Alinsky.

Trying to reason with someone who has accepted this sort of argument might well be a fool’s errand. I don’t expect it is possible to change the minds of many who are existentially committed to a sub-cultural assumption that Democrats are inherently demonized, but in the interest of showing respect for the intelligence of some that I know who are entertaining such ideas (even though I think they should know better), I want to take the trouble here to explore the theological assumptions this entails and what I see as the misconceptions behind such an approach. There are a few basic questions we need to consider here:

  • Who is the devil and what are his basic strategic goals?
  • What is the essence of human sinfulness and how should we be fighting against such?
  • How does the pursuit of knowledge as such figure into this dilemma?

I have been trying to discuss this matter with a friend of mine who is fairly closely associated with the “Democrats are demonic” position in ways that I am not at liberty to discuss publically. I will continue here by trying to fairly summarize his perspectives on the above questions, and from there I will offer my own rather different perspectives on the matter. For purposes of protecting my friend’s privacy I will refer to him here as Vic.

When it comes to the basic identity of the devil, Vic follows the standard medieval reinterpretations of the taunt against the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14 (which is the only place the name “Lucifer” is actually used in the Bible), together with the references to the Prince of Persia as a supernatural adversary in Daniel 10, and description of the dragon/serpent in Revelation 12 as the basis for understanding the origin of the devil. From there he follows the standard reinterpretation of Genesis 3 saying that the snake there was literally the devil in animal form, and from there all mankind’s troubles begin. In other words, based on rather sketchy Bible evidence, Vic, like most evangelicals, believes that the devil is a former chief angel who rebelled against God and got a number of other angels to join him, causing them to become demons, which God then cast into hell; but God hasn’t definitively locked hell down yet so we still have to fight against its forces. The chief goal of the devil –– also known as Satan and/or Beelzebub –– as Vic sees it, is to bring death, in a rather broad sense.  This is based on one interpretation of the binary opposition between the two great trees in the Garden of Eden: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The latter, from which mankind eventually chose to eat from in the narrative in question, Vic sees primarily as the horticultural embodiment of the power of death that the devil wishes to bring mankind under. In his view we need to fight against the powers of death by challenging the devil’s destructive work in all its forms. Human sinfulness, according to this view, is primarily a matter of alienation from God caused by inadvertently joining into the devil’s rebellion against God. This is easily simplified to God’s work vs. the devil’s work and from there the point is to stay on God’s side rather than drifting to the devil’s side.

In order to explain how, in his thinking, this relates to the actual name given for the “bad tree” in the garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Vic referred me to some of the writings of the pre-Maoist Chinese Christian theologian Watchman Nee. Nee’s perspective on the matter has some interesting Buddhism flavored aspects to it: he sees the question as one of mankind being separated from God through building the power of the human ego in terms of strengthening the soul through knowledge. In order to explicate a state that would be preferable to this soul empowerment through knowledge, Nee postulates that the human being should ideally be a three-part entity: body, soul and spirit. The spirit, in this view, would be the aspect of the person’s identity that forms the contact point with the divine. The human spirit ideally should govern the soul, but in the non-believing person it sits dormant or functionally dead, and in the “less spiritual” believer it remains overshadowed by the egotistical power of the soul. Thus the “death” of sin is first of all a matter of the human spirit, as distinct from the soul, ceasing to function in its original created capacity, and salvation and redemption are matters of resuscitating that spirit within the person. Thereby the Buddhist teaching of “awakening” through overcoming the ego is realized by postulating a “divine spark” that must master the ego within each of us, but in order to remain Christian in this perspective Nee held that the human spirit can only be brought to life through properly orthodox Christian faith.

This opens up an interesting can of worms. As I blogged last year, for those scientifically debating the nature of human consciousness there is an open question of whether the phenomenon can be explained in purely material terms of “the soul” being simply “software” running in the machinery of our bodies, or if the soul has its own ontological essence distinct from the body, beyond the realm of atoms and molecules even. As an argument within that field, however, the idea of postulating split within the non-material essence of human beings to include a third aspect called “spirit,” that only functions operationally in those which subscribe to the proper sort of Christian minority dogma, would be a bit of a non-starter. There is no “scientific” justification for such a teaching, so the only justification for Christians believing in such would be if it was so clearly stated in the Bible that, for the believer, no other evidence would be necessary. In short, that isn’t the case.

What does the Bible have to say about the human spirit as distinct from the soul? If we start out with the Old Testament teaching on the subject, the Hebrew word in question is ruach, which is variously translated into English as spirit, wind, breath, heart, mind, motives, temper, breeze, etc. As an internal characteristic of humanity, as opposed to a divine action temporarily effecting a person (“…the spirit of God came upon him and he prophesied…”) there are relatively few references to a human ruach as such. Among those we do find a person’s ruach can be understood quite literally as his or her breath –– as in that which smells bad when he/she eats too much garlic –– not necessarily having anything to do with an inherent capacity for the divine. When Joseph, of technicolor dream coat fame, was sent for by the pharaoh to interpret a dream it was because the pharaoh’s “spirit was troubled”. (Later in the same chapter (Genesis 41) that pharaoh hired Joseph because he had a “divine spirit” to him.) In 1 Samuel 30, David’s little freelance army found an Egyptian army slave who had been left behind because he was too weak to keep up, and through feeding him some high fructose snack foods “his spirit revived”. Then in 1 Kings 10 the Queen of Sheba was left breathless by the splendor of Solomon’s accomplishments, or in some translations, “there was no spirit left in her.” In all of these cases references to the human spirit relate largely to aspects of experience that effect our rate of breathing, quite literally.

The action of God breathing is a different matter entirely. God’s breath is said to be the source of life as such, and for man to become “a living soul” (nephesh in Hebrew) was the result of God blowing into him. Many miracles were based on God blowing, not the least of which was the parting of the Red Sea for the Exodus. God blowing on waters to overcome the destruction they entail can also be seen in Genesis 1:2 and 8:1. Fundamentalist Protestants in particular also tend to make a big deal of the idea of God blowing into the scriptures according to 2 Timothy 3:16, but that too is a whole different essay.

There is also a collection of references to ruach which are connected with neither God nor any particular human doing the blowing. This is a continuous theme of the book of Ecclesiastes in particular, where it is associated with vanity, emptiness, futility and meaninglessness. In this regard the Jewish understanding of “spiritual” was more like the way we use the word “mythical” these days: something with essentially nothing to it. If you’re talking about God doing the blowing then there’s some serious power involved, basically because it’s God we’re talking about, but the idea of blowing in general is anything but a big or important deal. The Old Testament therefore cannot be said to support Nee’s idea of a human spirit as a significant “spiritual” entity (in our modern sense of the word) distinct from the soul.

The Greek word used to translate the Hebrew idea of ruach, when Greek became the common language among Jesus’ followers, was pneuma –– the root word for “pneumatic” to describe the kind of drill a dentist uses, and for “pneumonia” as the sort of lung infection that was particularly deadly before antibiotics came along. Besides its simple meaning as “air” or “breath” in different contexts though, pneuma had its own connotations from the writings of Greek philosophers that stretched it a bit beyond just a literal or poetic reference to one’s breath. This was a subject of heated debate among Jewish intellectuals of New Testament times, and in Acts 23 Paul used the disagreements over this very topic to draw attention away from the less orthodoxly Jewish teachings about Jesus that he was on trial for proclaiming.

The main point to emerge in Paul’s own teaching regarding philosophical anthropology as such was that people, regardless of how many parts you break them down into, have a life after death, and that life does not necessarily entail occupying a physical body (2 Corinthians 5). In his day and age that in itself was a pretty radically Hellenistic sort of thing for someone of a pharisaical background to say! It further seems rather likely that this perspective came to him as the result of having his own out-of-body experience. In the subsequently talking about the possibility of non-embodied life, Paul does not speak of a spirit/soul distinction that showed up in his earlier writings. Time to back up a bit here.

The non-material essence of the person is variably referred to by different New Testament authors as either the pneuma (spirit, breath) or the psyche (soul, life), but whereas other New Testament writers use these terms rather randomly and interchangeably, early on Paul tries to draw somewhat of a distinction between them. His most direct teaching on the matter is found in the end of 1 Corinthians 15, as part of the discourse on his expectation of seeing Jesus’ return within his own lifetime. His perspective there is based on the premise (typical for Jewish thinkers of his time) that any form of human experience, whether in this life or the life to come, requires some sort of body to have the experience. The background assumption is that our bodies are essential to who we are as individuals. But in this regard Paul is already stretching standard assumptions by speaking of his expectation that our afterlife bodies will be of a radically different sort than the ones which characterize who we are now. In verse 45 he associates the natural body with the historical character of Adam and the anticipated supernatural body with the resurrected Jesus. In further distinguishing between these sorts of bodies, Paul speaks of the soul (psyche) as the operating principle of our current bodies, with the spirit (pneuma) as the operating principle of the type of afterlife body he anticipated. From there he goes on to explain to the Corinthians what he expected to see when “the final trumpet sounds” (vv. 50-53): First those who had died would get their bodies changed into spiritual ones, and after that “we who remain” will have our bodies transformed into the better sort. Life without a body was too strange a concept for him to talk about at that phase of his thinking on the subject. Thus his point was to say that our after-life bodies will be radically different from our present ones, and the soul/spirit distinction was part of his way of trying to explain the difference.

By the time he got around to writing 2 Corinthians, however, Paul’s perspectives on these matters seem to have undergone some significant adjustments, probably as the result of a personal near death out-of-body experience of the sort alluded to in the beginning of chapter 12. Thus he no longer speaks of the human body as what makes the person who he/she is, which is eventually destined to take on a more glorified form; Paul sees his body rather as a mere “tent” or “garment” that he was temporarily living in or wearing. Furthermore Paul seems resigned to the idea that, though he still believed that Jesus would come back again someday, he probably wouldn’t live to see it, and in fact that was just fine with him.

While these perspectives are not impossible to harmonize with each other, the contrast between them is quite clear. If from there we take the possibility of a non-embodied afterlife to represent Paul’s more mature thought on the matter, and if we recognize that he was mistaken in his expectation that he would live to see Jesus’ Second Coming, that throws somewhat of a shadow over the discourse in which he comes closest to speaking directly about a contrast between the human soul and the human spirit.

Moving on from there we find just two more Bible verses in which the words soul and spirit appear side by side in a way that would imply a distinction between them: 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and Hebrews 4:12. The former again has to do with Paul’s early expectation of living to see Jesus’ return. With that in mind he tells those in Thessalonica that he wants to present them in good shape to Jesus when he comes –– in completely good shape: “spirit, soul and body.” In the latter reference the anonymous author of the book of Hebrews gives a series of poetic expressions describing how deeply scripture, in the analogy of a sword, can/should cut into us: going so deep into the heart as to cut between our thoughts and intentions; going so deep into our physical being as to cut our very bones apart; going so deep into our non-material selves as to cut between our souls and spirits. For some reason Watchman Nee took this latter reference quite literally, saying that spirit and soul are separate entities that God’s Word needs to cut apart from each other so that the spirit can remain in charge of the soul. The Amplified Bible, on the other hand, places a footnote on this passage which directly contradicts such an interpretation:  “‘soul and spirit’ used here to emphasize the whole person, not two separate entities.”

A more common literary expression for referring to the whole person being involved in some matter or another is “heart and soul,” which as a pair is found over 30 times in the Bible. Distinguishing between the respective functions of the heart and those of the soul, however, is not seen as a particularly productive theological exercise. Even less then would I be inclined to distinguish between a person’s breath (spirit) and soul on the basis of a far more limited number of Biblical references to such a pair. Thus I am inclined to disagree with my friend Vic’s perspective taking Watchman Nee’s concept of man being an inherently tripartite being –– body, soul and spirit, with the last of these becoming disabled through the fall in Genesis 3 –– as a basis for understanding the essence of the devil’s work. Following the principle of Occam’s Razor, I don’t see a particularly good reason for postulating that there is an extra part of the non-material part of each of us that we need to bring to life with the proper religious confessions and rituals. This strikes me as a pseudo-scientific distinction, related to many different failed efforts to categorize human cognitive capacities in common-sensical ways –– ranging from the study of phrenology (built on the assumption that our cognitive capacities can be determined based on the shape of our heads), to the more dogmatic variations on Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory (that Gardner himself has categorically rejected).

So if Watchman Nee’s theory that the devil is out to kill the spirit and replace it with extra soul energy in the form of knowledge doesn’t hold water, how are we to conceptualize the relationship between the devil, human evil and knowledge as they seem to be mystically tied to each other in Genesis 3?

Let’s start by looking at what the Bible has to say directly about Satan. The first real reference we have to such a character is where he is blamed for the census David decided to take in 1 Chronicles 21. That’s sort of an interesting stand-alone reference to a new character, quite certainly inserted into the story after this character had been introduced to the Jewish people in the first two chapters of the book of Job. There we have a rather odd back-story to explain Job’s suffering, with it being caused by a rather childish sounding challenge in heaven between God and this Satan character, in which God lets Satan screw up Job’s life and kill his children just to settle a random bet (with nothing actually wagered).  This depiction of disputes in heaven, with the mischievous gods messing up the lives of mortals on a whim, seems more in keeping with Greco-Roman mythology than with the rest of the Bible, but we’ll leave that for the time being. The main point is that Satan first appears as an incidental side character whose job is to challenge the worthiness of God’s people to be acceptable before Him. He plays this same role one last time in the Old Testament in Zechariah 3.

In the New Testament we have Satan first of all as spiritual force which tries to keep Jesus from completing his life’s work. In this regard it makes perfect sense for Jesus to address Peter as Satan when Peter stated his intention to prevent Jesus from being crucified (Matthew 16:23). Fighting against a spiritual enemy force organized by Satan then becomes more of a running theme in Paul’s epistles and especially in the book of Revelation. At times Paul implies that Satan has a legitimate positive role to play in the Church, as God’s “district attorney” prosecuting those who stand deserving of judgement (1 Corinthians 5:5, 1 Timothy 1:20). Most of those attacked by Satan, however, are merely weak and in need of God’s mercy and strength, and Paul suggests a number of strategies for not falling prey to these attacks (e.g. 2 Corinthians 2:11). Paul also refers to the various things which limited his own effectiveness in his work spreading the Gospel as being “from Satan” (2 Corinthians 12:7, 1 Thessalonians 2:18). So while Satan’s role is diversified to a fair degree in the New Testament as compared with the Old, his primary stock and trade remains accusation and prosecution against those who wish to be accepted by God. The devil’s primary task then is to insult, accuse, slander and belittle those to whom God wants to reveal His love. Satan is out to prevent people from loving God and each other, primarily by making them feel unworthy of God’s love, and perhaps even unworthy of human contact. The picture painted in the New Testament is more diverse than that, but the core element from the Old Testament remains the same.

The essence of human sinfulness, in turn, is whatever separates us from loving contact with God and each other. So then how does this relate to knowledge, as in the name of that bad tree? There are a number of ways of explaining it, but I would attempt to do so following two models in particular. First we have the factor that knowledge is inevitably based on comparison, which in turn requires separations and distinctions in order for comparisons to be drawn. Comparison is thus in many ways the opposite of connection, and love is all about connecting. This makes the pursuit of knowledge, especially of the good-and-evil-evaluating sort, directly opposed to love.

The other, rather related, way of looking at the knowledge question is that knowing good and evil is a matter of forensic accounting: keeping track of who morally owes what sort of debts and how those debts need to be paid. That is the essence of Satan’s job. The essence of Jesus’ mission and message, on the other hand, is to reveal the priority of compassion over vengeance; or as one radical Lutheran pastor these days puts it, Jesus is God saying to mankind, “I would rather die than remain in this sin accounting business that you’ve put me in!”

In order to avoid separation from God and our fellow human beings we need to recognize that all of us are rather uniformly distant from the divine ideal, and trying to find ways of justifying claims that some are less deserving of God’s favor than others is the primary thing that puts people on Satan’s side.

So how does all this come back around to the current state of American politics? I realize that I’ll probably be labelled as a radical leftist by some for saying so, but I believe the only truly Christian perspective on the matter is that followers of Jesus within a representative democracy should be using the degree of power God has given them in that regard to express their love for Him by using the government, to the extent they have any genuine control in that matter, as a means of caring for their neighbors in every possible way. The point is not to force others to live according to our moral ideals, but to try to organize things so that people respect each other and work together to insure care and respect for all. Just how paternalistic we can get about this process is going to be a complicated question at times, but the overall goal of caring for and respecting others based on the belief that all people are made in God’s image should clearly be our most basic political priority.

The amount of power we actually have may be far more limited than we think, however. In the event that the forces controlling a corrupt empire are beyond what we can control democratically, or by any other means that our Christian integrity leave open to us, we can simply trust God and know that there are greater powers out there than those determining the course of any given empire. (This certainly includes the United States.) On the other hand chasing after power or trying to cling to power for power’s own sake, regardless of how many victims this process may entail, is the polar opposite of the teachings of Jesus!

What then are the most dangerously satanic things to be avoided in this regard? Quite simply the urge to attack others as a means of gaining power. Hate-mongering, fear-mongering and continuous accusations against “the others” are what make the devil who he is. If your politics depend on these strategies you can be quite sure you are on the wrong side. Ironically, labeling others as being “of the devil” can be a strong means of doing the devil’s work!

To avoid being hypocritical I will not take the liberty to say that one party or the other is of the devil, but I would caution all of those participating in any political organization which claims to be doing “the Lord’s work” to be careful about what sort of kingdom their actions represent. This is a far more important evil to avoid than rumored associations with the devil based on bad jokes in the epigrams to non-fiction books which particular candidates have studied.

And when His disciples James and John saw this [a village rejecting Jesus], they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of.”
Luke 9:54-55 (NKJV)

(Opening picture: The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens)



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Letter to my Former Selves


Many of my friends and role models have, on particular occasions, done an exercise in fantasy time travel: going back to speak to earlier versions of themselves on a “if you only knew what I know now” basis. I’ve never actually tried such an exercise before, but as the calendar year 2015 draws to a close, with all of the various transitions and wild adventures that it has included, I think it’s time for me to give it a shot. I’ll take the tried and true format of speaking to my selves on the Christmases of each year of my life thus far ending in a 5.

Warning: this is bound to be very personal and perhaps somewhat self-indulgent. In some ways that’s the whole point of the exercise. If you don’t want to have TMI (too much information) shock about me perhaps you might want to consider skipping this blog entry. For those who have been close to me and shared particular aspects of my life, forgive me if I get a bit close to home on such things. I’ll try not to violate much of your privacy here, but I realize this could end up getting a bit uncomfortable.

And with that I take a deep breath and dive on in:

To David of 1965 –– Jackson, Michigan:

You are still too young to remember any of this Christmas, but it has been an idyllic one anyway. Your baby sister has started walking and talking and your young parents have done surprisingly well in getting ahold of their own little piece of the American dream. Having a college education paid for through their parents’ savings and their own hard work, your father being employed in the computer industry in what will come to be seen as its early days, and already having a respectable home of their own in the suburbs and two nice little kids while they’re still in their early twenties is quite the accomplishment –– something that was possible for no previous generation in their families, and in all likelihood will not be possible for any future generation of middle class Americans.

They’re good people. Always be thankful for their strong minds, their good hearts (in the figurative sense at least) and their strong but balanced sense of ambition in life. Even so, it would help for you to be aware of the fact that they got into this “rat race” far too young and they really don’t know what they’re doing at it. In the next few years, after moving to a different part of the country and giving you a couple of baby brothers to go with the package, they aren’t going to be able to hold it together any more. It’s going to be tough on all of you. Hang in there though; you’ll have some advantages that most kids from “broken families” can only dream of: your parents will never use you and your siblings as weapons against each other, and you’ll never have reason to doubt either of their love for you.

Your baby sister will be fine, even if she seems to follow you around and compete with you in bothersome ways at times. Try and avoid letting that get on your nerves. The little brother you’ve got coming next year will need more of your attention actually; not “leadership” but attention. Try to be there for him as much as possible. And be careful with all of the pressure to be “the man of the house” in your dad’s residential absence. Beyond that, be aware that believing that good things are coming in your life can be what we call a self-fulfilling prophecy.


To David of 1975 –– South Berwick, Maine:

In many ways you have already found your niche in life it seems. Your grandparents refer to the evangelical Christian religious community where your mother has taken you and your siblings to live as a “commune” and in some ways that’s not far from the truth. You sort of know that this lifestyle isn’t what people in “the world” consider normal, but you’re cool with that. There’s plenty of support and positive reinforcement from the ex-hippie Bible college students that you’re hanging around with, and that kind of atmosphere is helping you learn to think on a much higher level than is expected of kids your age. You can be thankful for that.

You can also be especially thankful for the opportunity to debate about these things with your father on a regular basis. Without that sort of strong contact with the outside world you could be in a rather risky place psychologically. Never doubt the sincerity of your father’s faith, even if he is far more “liberal” about it than your pastor is willing to accept. That doesn’t mean that his salvation should be in any doubt.

For all the good there is for you in this life though, there are still things you should try to understand. First of all you don’t really have to worry about Jesus coming back before you have a chance to experience adult life. You sort of know that already, and it wouldn’t do you much good to dispute this fact with those around you who are dogmatically convinced that the “Rapture” will occur before 1981, but just don’t worry about it. There are enough other stresses in life without worrying about that.

One source of stress for you to deal with more actively is your sexuality, but not in the way you might think. Don’t let the subject scare you, and don’t let the overall negativity towards the subject there “on campus” determine your perspective on the matter. There is nothing inherently evil about it, and it is not the devil trying to distract you from “your calling” or anything like that. Be aware of where the young people a decade or so older than yourself that you are hanging out with are coming from in this regard: they were part of a cultural experiment in stretching the boundaries of how public you could be about enjoying sex outside of marriage. They already have a variety of hindsight perspectives on that experience, and the main emphases in teachings from the pulpit on that subject are to get them to leave all that behind. Thus you may hear a lot about the role of the devil in sexuality and all that, and you need such messages with a grain of salt. You’ll want to find out more about the subject than what your community there wants you to know, and that would be a good thing. You’ll also want to work on learning to recognize when girls are or are not interested in you in a pre-sexual sort of way, and determining what you want to do with that information…

You will inevitably draw the wrong conclusions and learn the wrong lessons from your parents’ and your older peers’ experiences in this area. I wish I could tell you that everything will work out alright in that department, but it’s best to be honest about the fact that it will be tough for you. The best I can tell you is that knowing you are loved in non-sexual ways by so many important people will help you get through many of the frustrating and inevitably awkward times ahead. And beyond that, even though it is something cruelly joked about at times, there really is a certain value in sexual innocence, for guys as well as girls, even if it is largely involuntary.


To David of 1985 –– Helsinki, Finland

So you and Minna have decided to get engaged this Christmas. In some ways that was inevitable. It certainly provides you with a boost in hope and confidence levels. That doesn’t mean it is a wise or safe decision, but I’m not sure I should try to talk you out of it; there are important places for you to go and things for you to do that you probably can only reach by way of such a path.

Your efforts to help start a church in Wales, that you’re now about to call it quits with, will remain a sort of awkward footnote in your life, but the pain-to-lessons-learned ration on that one will make it one of the better learning experiences you will go through in adult life; no need for regrets over your misjudgments on that one.  And now you’re visiting Finland, seriously contemplating the idea of making it your home. That is a wild idea, but it can actually work for you.

The most important thing you should realize is that John Lennon was fundamentally wrong about the idea that “all you need is love”. Love is pretty thoroughly blind at times, but in hindsight you will realize the truth of something you are now actively trying to deny: Minna has deeper personal problems than what your love can fix for her. By making her part of your life you are setting yourself up to be blamed for those problems long-term. Eventually the truth will come out, but not before you’ve been through a horrible amount of wasted pain. Nor will this be the only time you make such a mis-judgement. The sooner you get over the idea that you can use love to repair dysfunctions in women who have that sort of interest in you, the better things will be for you.

Meanwhile Finland is about to start changing pretty radically, and you will have a great front row seat from which to watch history being made. Enjoy the show. Enjoy taking part in the process. If only you could do that without all the marriage messes you’ve got coming…

But here’s where your innocence is both part of the problem and part of how you will eventually get through it. Two virgins saving themselves for their wedding night is not actually a particularly good recipe for long-term sexual fulfilment in life. Eventually you will realize that. But coming into the relationship with that level of innocence also serves to protect you from feeling guilty for causing your own problems through your moral failures. You’re not wicked, just incredibly naïve. Realizing that when you face all sorts of accusations later on will be important for remaining at peace with yourself. It will also provide a starting point for rebuilding your relationship with God through this whole mess. Hang onto that. Don’t lose hope, regardless of what comes your way.


To David of 1995 –– Helsinki, Finland

Been quite a ride, hasn’t it! You’ve had some pretty serious ups and downs over the past decade. You’ve learned about the dangers of marriage, of recovery romances and at times of loneliness. After stints in different aspects of the Finnish food service industry you’ve discovered that teaching is what you are really especially good at. And in spite of all of your humiliation from association with crazy women and crazier church leaders, you’ve started to carve out a niche for yourself as a foreign scholar and a respectable theologian here.

Economically the worst is behind you already. You’re not about to become rich, but the days of not being able to visit with your sons because you can’t afford to provide meals for them during the visit are behind you now. The struggle to have your role as their father recognized and respected has a long way to go still, but don’t give up on it; they will remain the most important part of what makes you you.

Perhaps the best advice I can offer to you at this point, besides encouraging you never to give up, is to tell you to keep working on developing those writing skills. The worlds of e-mail, on-line communities and flexible electronic publishing systems are just beginning, and using them to get your ideas out into the world will be important for you. Try to stay focused on you writing projects, not letting them gather dust for months or years at a time. Every book you finish will be an important step towards gaining respect and justifying your existence to those who have doubts about the matter.

Beyond that be careful, but enjoy this time as a single university student now for all it’s worth. There will be plenty of good things to look back on from the turbulent decade.


To David of 2005 –– Espoo, Finland

At last it’s starting to feel like adult life is settling into a groove for you. At last you are officially qualified to do the sort of teaching work that you’ve been doing for the past eight years! Soon your efforts as a parent and spouse will also be (somewhat) vindicated. Your sons’ childhoods are effectively over already, so you won’t be able to have the sort of active role you spent so long hoping for, but it the vindication will be sort of satisfying regardless. The physical aging process is a bit of a bummer, but there’s some compensation to be had in having people start to take you seriously as an adult for a change. Both trends are set to increase as time goes on. Take it for what it is.

There are all sorts of little details in life that you need to beware of: pay attention to details of your dog Mac’s health. He will remain important in the process of trying to maintain your sanity for many years yet, and by staying alert to his little problems you can make his life a lot more carefree and painless. Likewise pay attention to your own health. Take the weight loss thing seriously and pay attention to issues of your circulatory system in particular.

What else can I suggest to you? Beware of letting anyone talk you into borrowing money to invest in real estate; you’ll see what I mean. There are plenty of new adventures and major disappointments coming in the next decade for you. Be careful about getting your hopes up on some things, but don’t let new adventures scare you off. It’s true what they say that you’ll regret more the things you didn’t dare to try than the things you tried at and failed. Keep investing your time and energy, and what little money you have at your disposal, in people rather than things. In the long run it will be worth it.


Sincerely, your older self

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Larycia vs. Tashlan

A lot of virtual ink has been spilled this month regarding the issue of the Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton College. To me the fundamental dynamics of the case are somewhat self-evident. I’m under no illusions that Professor Hawkins needs my help in the matter, but I do find it rather interesting all the same. I thought it would be worth writing a little about in that I see some little details of the case that other sources haven’t paid particular attention to yet.

hawkinsThe most surprising thing to me about the whole case is that Professor Hawkins made it as far as she did. By all reports we are talking about a brilliant young black woman (a decade my junior) from the deep south of the United States (Oklahoma) with strong social justice convictions and passions, who has followed those passions to achieve the position of tenured professor in the field of political science at one of the strongest academic bastions of evangelical activism in America. I can only speculate that this college originally saw in her a means of presenting a political and intellectual challenge to Obama-supporting black churches of the Martin Luther King Jr. tradition. Her official research interest in “Black Political Churches Outside the Black Church Milieu” hints in that direction. That would sit nicely with the orthodox white Religious Right mind set. But according to reports from the Chicago Tribune these defenders of the post-Reagan evangelical political status quo have already repeatedly questioned whether this young lady’s independent ideas might be more trouble than they’re worth to them. Her orthodoxy has previously been questioned for her stands in defense of the rights of women, blacks and sexual minorities, and now she goes and stands up for Muslims! “What were we thinking when we hired such a person?” they must be saying to themselves. “Isn’t there any way we can get her to leave quietly?”

The issue of contention here is whether Professor Hawkins violated the college’s doctrinal position required for all staff members in saying that she agrees with the popes on the matter of Muslims, “as people of the Book,” worshipping the same God as Christians. Experts far more accomplished and noteworthy than myself have already addressed this issue at some length; in particular Yale’s Professor Miroslav Volf. Suffice it to say as a summary of his argument that there is a strong tradition in Christian theology of at least respecting Islam’s sincerity in attempting to follow the god of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus; and if you’re going to say that Christianity’s God, the Father of Jesus, is a different god that Islam’s Allah, for consistency sake you also really need to acknowledge that Christianity’s understanding of God is so fundamentally different from the genocide-demanding JWHW of the ancient Jews as to be a different character entirely.

The token response to this from the evangelical side has come from a former Muslim by the name of Nabeel Qureshi, who claims that he still as warm relations with Muslim family members, and that as a convert he still used to believe that Christians and Muslims worship the same god, but not he has “outgrown” that position. It’s hard to understand what Qureshi actually means when he claims that “[t]he similarities between the God of Islam and the God of Christianity are fairly superficial, and at times simply semantic.” The Islamic understanding of God is every bit as derived from the Christian one as the Christian understanding of God is derived from the Ancient Jewish one. Islam also has elements derived from Muhammed’s direct contact with Jews, and it remains far closer to the Jewish understanding of monotheism than Christianity’s is to either, but whereas the Jews considered Jesus to be a blasphemous messianic pretender, Muslims revere him as a great prophet. How then can this be a matter of mere superficial and semantic similarity?

Qureshi’s superficial response to Volf’s position, which he claims “should be obvious to those who have studied the three Abrahamic faiths,” is that “the Trinity is an elaboration on Jewish theology,” whereas “Tawhid is a categorical rejection of the Trinity,” etc. What I actually see as obvious for anyone who has studied all three faiths, however, is first of all that modern Judaism (which is less a parent faith to Christianity than a feuding sister) rejects Trinitarian doctrine every bit as strenuously as Islam does. Beyond that I would say that there’s a fairly strong scholarly consensus among those who study the Bible for a living that reading Trinitarian intent into the writings of the Old Testament prophets takes a fair among of intellectual dishonesty. The best we can say for the origins of Christian dogma in that regard is that the best minds of the second through sixth centuries worked extensively on finding ways to harmonize the mysteries of Jesus’ persona with his deep respect for the Jewish scriptures and the Trinity is what they came out with. To call Qureshi’s position a weak argument is perhaps the understatement of the month.

Besides trying to intellectually justify Religious Right politics, another thing that would naturally put the powers that be at Wheaton at odds with someone like Professor Hawkins is their regard for C.S. Lewis as something akin to a twentieth century apostle. In this case it relates in particular to various interpretations of the theological intentions and revelations contained in the Chronicles of Narnia.


It has been decades since I have read these classics, but some of the details regarding them have remained in my mind over the decades since my highly evangelical childhood. I remember in particular that, especially in the 70s, when I would have read these classics, with the “rapture” expectations that were sweeping through evangelicalism at the time, The Last Battle was considered to be the most theologically and culturally important of the seven volume series. This final book of the series aptly captured the end-of-the-world zeitgeist among evangelical Protestant Christians of the early rock-and-roll era in children’s fable form. This inevitably involved a battle between good and evil, with the primary force of evil in the story being the self-appointed religious rule of Shift, a deceitful Narnian (talking) ape, who devised a system for co-opting the religious reverence for Aslan (the Jesus-lion character) and blending it with the worship of Tash, the primary god of the Calormenes, Narnia’s neighbors and sometime enemies to the southeast. Thus the ape was able to get the other Narnians to work harder, for less pay, as part of the “will of Aslan” to prove their worthiness –– enabling the ape in turn to satisfy a number of his personal selfish desires at their expense.

PuzzleaslanTo pull off this deception Shift convinces a rather simple-minded donkey named Puzzle to dress up in a lion skin and pretend to be the real Aslan. This was said to work only because it had been many generations since they had seen the real Aslan, and they were desperate for something transcendent to believe in. It stretches the believability of the narrative to claim that even the most simple-minded of mythical creatures could believe that a donkey in a lion’s skin really was a supernaturally powerful lion, but that is rather Lewis’s comic point of the matter: It also rather boggles the mind that so many who claim to agents of the teachings and power of Jesus could be taken seriously, unless their followers have no concept of what the real Jesus was/is like, and they are painfully desperate to believe in something. But then Shift stretches their gullibility even further by claiming that Aslan is in fact the same person as the chief god in the Calormene pantheon, Tash. Thus he innovates a new name for this deity blending the two names together as Tashlan.

One common interpretation of Lewis’s intention in this story is to say that the Calormene people in Narnia’s magical world are supposed to represent the Muslims in our world. There are a number of problems with such an interpretation: First, that the Calormenes are polytheists, not strict monotheists like the Muslims. Second, the Calormenes believe in a myth of their leaders being the descendants of their gods, much like the Japanese Shinto followers prior to World War 2, but certainly not like the Muslims. Beyond that the Calormenes had a very specific physical form which they believed their god would take, again quite the opposite of Islamic teaching. But in spite of all of this it is entirely possible that, for mythical narrative purposes, Lewis took liberties of blending together different “other” cultures studied by “orientalist” academics of his generation in creating these enemies for the Narnians to fight against at the end of their world –– including a number of signature features of Islam as understood from a British colonial perspective.

Regardless of the problems associated with using The Last Battle as a justification for Islamophobia however, that is exactly what many around Wheaton and in its supporting evangelical spheres seem to be doing just now. They believe that the God of the Muslims must in reality be either a product of worshipers’ imaginations or, more probably, a demonic supernatural power that deceived their prophet into setting up a new false religion 1400 years ago. In the end of The Last Battle, the character of Tash, the demonic god of the Calormenes, actually comes to life and consumes his would-be representatives, before being banished by those representing the true authority of Aslan. In the same way these evangelicals are convinced that Allah is really a supernatural character of some sort from “the dark side” that is really out to destroy his followers, eventually to be banished by the Triune God of the Christians.


To hold this sort of position requires a rather loose understanding of the theological dogmas of all three Abrahamic faiths, together with a tendency to take mythologized versions of early twentieth century British orientalism far too seriously. In some ways this just serves to demonstrate how much more powerful narratives are than theoretical lectures as means of instruction: the official teachings are forgotten, but the dramatic interpretations of them remain in people’s minds.

What Jews, Christians and Muslims officially agree about is postulating that the sort of God whose CV gives rise to “the problem of evil” really does exist: The God who is worthy of worship and praise must necessarily be personal, all-knowing, all-powerful, everywhere-present, and completely benevolent. Thus all three faiths struggle with the issue of how evil can still exist in our world if such a God exists. They have a long history of quite freely borrowing arguments from each other in this regard over the centuries. To say that, in spite of this, and in spite of the extent to which Islam appears to be derived from reinterpretations of early Medieval Christian teachings, the God of Islam must be a different character from the God of Christianity, has two possible implications: either there are a number of different omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and omni-benevolent deities out there in competition with each other; or there is no such metaphysical object for our respective faiths “out there” and every religiously worshipped deity is really just a human creation. The former alternative is a logical impossibility; the nature of those divine characteristics precludes that they could be spread around between various competing gods. The latter position sort of defeats the whole purpose of having a dogmatic belief in any deity to begin with. Thus it is logically rather absurd to claim that the Christian God is real and the Muslims worship something entirely different. Either there is a real God with these attributes “out there” and both religions are, to the best of their understanding and abilities trying to comprehend something about this God, making efforts to please him and at the same time call out for his mercy; or there really isn’t any such god “out there” and Christianity and Islam are offering very different types of imaginary friends to their followers. It sort of has to be one or the other.

elephantBut then at this point someone usually takes out the old fable of the four blind men groping the elephant. (“It’s like a tree.” “It’s like a wall.” “It’s like a sail.” “It’s like a rope.” …all as interpretations of parts of the same animal.) In spite of the pictures that some of my Kenyan Facebook friends have put up associating me with elephants, however, that cliché example is fairly distant from my everyday life. What I’m more familiar with is the various sorts of interpretations of what sort of person I am from people who know me through very different connections. Some know me as the nasty teacher who gave their children lower grades than they were expecting. Some know me as the fine teacher who inspired particular students to pursue the academic careers in which they have since made their own mark. Some know me as the guy who makes pretty good pizza for house guests. Some know me as they owner of a particularly nice dog. Some know me as an inspirational speaker or writer. Some know me as the ex-boyfriend or husband of some woman who has come and gone in my life… Some of these people know me better or more thoroughly than others. Some of their interpretations are actually mutually exclusive: I logically cannot be all the things that various acquaintances say that I am! Even so, I would not accuse those with more unfriendly interpretations of my personality of (necessarily) having me mixed up with some other David.

When it comes to God it somewhat goes without saying that no religion, and no individual believer, knows him perfectly. On the assumption that he really is “out there,” we can say that some inevitably know him better than others. We can say that some religions are more helpful than others in enabling people to relate to their fellow human beings according a principle of manifesting the love of God, but none have yet to get that “entirely right”. We can say that some have missed the mark pretty thoroughly in practice, but in theory they mean well. Given where we are each at in those terms it’s far safer not to accuse others of worshipping the wrong god or of worshipping God wrong.

Our focus needs to rather be on each “getting it right” for ourselves in terms of rejecting the temptation to “do religion” as a means of justifying our hatred towards those who are too “other”. That was the essence of Jesus’ message that Christians in particular should be paying attention to. That is what Larycia Hawkins has got herself in trouble for standing up for yet again. That is why I respect her far more than her current opponents.

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Filed under Education, Empathy, Politics, Religion, Social identity

Uncle Ben and Other Myths

There has been a lot of talk over the past month about the versions of “truth” that have been coming out in debates between US Republican presidential candidates. Veteran conservative columnist George Will summed up the current atmosphere with the opening sentence of a scathing review of a book by one of his fellow News Corp. employees last week: “Donald Trump is just one symptom of today’s cultural pathology of self-validating vehemence with blustery certitudes substituting for evidence.”

Politicians in general have had a “challenged” relationship with “truth” since forever, but this season the syndrome has gotten to the point where somewhat educated people on the political right are shaking their heads in disbelief at some of the things their candidates seriously seem to believe. People in other parts of the western world are generally reassuring themselves with the belief that this is just a show for the satisfaction of the craziest 5% fringe of the American population, and that the populace as a whole would not be crazy enough to elect one of these people as leader of the most militarily powerful nation on earth. I’d like to think so myself, but when I was 18 years old my country elected Ronald Reagan as president, and since then I’ve made a point of never underestimating the ignorance of the common man there.

There are effectively two things that are more important than competence and awareness of an outside world to Republican primary voters, and thus to their would-be presidential candidates: guns and “Christian values”. To have any hope of being nominated these people need the approval of both the NRA and the NRB: the National Rifle Association and the National Religious Broadcasters. To get those approvals you can’t be too interested in truth as such. For both you have to put fears and presuppositions way ahead of investigation and critical thinking skills of any sort.

So one of the front runners is now a blustering business man who has always instinctively known that what those with money are willing to pay for is more important than what is sustainable or capable of increasing the public well-being, and who has thus made a career of putting image ahead of substance.

The other is a retired surgeon whose personal priority is to stay as far as possible from the poverty he grew up in, who knows that both seeing patients through high risk procedures and getting fans to pay to hear his story requires a skill in instilling confidence in them, regardless what the facts of the matter are. So he has become something of an expert in delivering that sort of hopeful message to patients and paying clients.

Last week’s major trivial dispute between liberals and conservatives had to do with interpreting the various statements that Dr. Carson has put forward as fact over the years. There have been essentially 5 issues on which he has been particularly challenged, each with its own ideological implications. To take them in the order they occurred in his life:

  1. He claims to have attempted to kill someone with a knife as a teenager, marking a turning point in learning to deal with anger issues by way of his religious faith.
  2. He claims that during his high school years he met with the US military commander of the forces in Viet Nam, and that in association with this meeting he was effectively promised a place at West Point Military Academy.
  3. He claims that there was a write-up in a student newspaper about his superior moral character as a student at Yale when he was they only one to do a re-test for a psychology exam that was actually given as a gag.
  4. He has asserted a continuing personal belief that the great pyramids of Egypt were originally build by the biblical character Joseph, son of Jacob, as grain storage facilities.
  5. He denied his ongoing association with a dubious company making herbal remedies for cancer, which he gave speeches to endorse after he had been treated for prostate cancer.

The Daily Mail’s picture of the portrait of himself and Jesus which Carson has on his wall at home.

The spin put on each of these issues has been rather amazing. Suffice to say that neither the Koch-financed Carson campaign with its Fox News support group, nor the American left blogosphere will give you any sort of reliable picture of what has happened in Carson’s life and thinking since the mid-sixties. To understand where he is coming from and how far he can be trusted, there are a few cultural genres which it helps to understand:
– the ghost written autobiographical American Dream rags-to-riches tale,
– the evangelical “personal testimony” tradition in both African-American and Adventist churches,
– the paid motivational speech by the “successful black man” who made it up out of the ghetto (usually as a professional athlete, but on occasion through other exceptional skills),
– the motivational sermon from Old Testament narratives of God saving his people,
– the classic “alternative medicine” or “miracle cure” sales pitch.

What all these have in common is that their “honesty” is not based on what the ancient Greeks called “logos”, but rather on some form of “mythos”. They can be honest in the same way as Shakespearean histories and dramas: they provide the audience with important life lessons about the human experience, existential purpose and causes they can believe in, even if they tend not to get all of the historical details right. This is the sort of world that Ben Carson has been living in for the past generation, since he escaped the ghetto.

The promotional picture for a biopic about Carson, starring Cuba Gooding Jr.

But there are distinct risks involved in this sort of mythical “honesty,” especially when its genres are not acknowledged and its “factuality” is taken too seriously by speaker and audience alike. The important thing is to keep things in perspective. So let’s look at the contexts these statements come from, consider the message they are attempting to give, and decide what sort of risks there might be in believing them.

I read Carson’s autobiography, “Gifted Hands,” years ago, when someone close to me was going under his knife. At the time he was not considering a retirement career in politics yet. He was mostly trying to do as much as possible to secure his place in the upper class, and trying to establish something of a legacy for himself as a humanitarian on the side. If reading ghost-written motivational autobiographies is sort of your thing I can recommend putting this book on your list. If you want to take the lazier version of the task of finding out about his non-political understanding of himself, I’d recommend sitting through the hour and a half of his Mannatech promotional speech from a decade ago on Youtube.

Bear in mind that this is a company that quite literally sells sugar pills as a cure for cancer, to the tune of over $200 per customer per month; that in the 5 years following the speech on this video, the company was sued by the state of Texas for sleazy business practices, and their products were discredited by researchers at Carson’s own Johns Hopkins University; but he continued to give pep talks to their sales force at least until 2013; yet in the famously “media biased” MSNBC Republican debate he denied any association with them.

In this speech Carson skillfully endorses the company’s integrity without making any direct factual claims regarding their products. In between he tells now familiar stories from his childhood, the tale of his frightening experience with prostate cancer, and above all he gives multiple testimonies to the healing power of prayer.

One of his cleverly placed applause lines is about the impossibility of maintaining political correctness, which largely overshadows the point of the narrative he packed around it: that he started off majoring in psychology, and while he still plays with psychoanalysis on an amateur level, he switched over to neuro-surgery for purely materialistic reasons –– he wanted to go where the big bucks were. To put it in his own words, “I hated poverty! …In a way I think maybe that was a good thing, because it drove me. At times when I might have been willing to give up, it drove me to go on, because I didn’t want to go back there.” It’s important to recognize the power of such hatred as the unifying principle of his biography. We’ll come back to that.

Carson’s personal testimony of redemption begins with his parents’ divorce and his subsequent academic difficulties in primary school. In this video version he adds a few other condemnations of his father beyond the fact that his mother discovered him practicing bigamy. Carson here claims that his father keeping another wife and kids on the side was only “the straw which broke the camel’s back” after his father’s more traditional ghetto sins of drinking, drugs and financial mismanagement. Some straw! Makes one wonder how much the facts of this story vary depending on the interests and political proclivities of his audience.

In any case, as he consistently tells it, his first major turn-around in life came from his mother’s God-given wisdom to keep he and his brother away from television and require them to start reading and reporting to her on library books. In the middle of that success story he hits on many of the standard Bush II era GOP talking points: believing that those who work hard and live smart always succeed, insisting that welfare is an evil and disempowering force in people’s lives, complaining about the damage that malpractice litigation and the insurance industry were doing to the medical profession, and suggesting that people other than lawyers need to be more actively involved in the legislative branch of government. Then, building from his overall narrative of struggling with anger issues and egotism as a high school student, (at approximately 54 minutes into the video) he comes to the famous tale of attempting to stab another teenager to death with a camping knife. From there he tells of locking himself in the bathroom to work the situation out with God, reading heavily in the book of Proverbs, and gaining mastery over his temper from that point on.

There are plenty of historical doubts about this one: Carson has recently claimed that his would-be victim is still alive, a member of his family, and in somewhat regular contact with him to this day. That would narrow it down to his brother, one of his Bostonian cousins on his mother’s side… or, as some have suggested, a figment of his imagination. At the end of the day though, this doesn’t seem to be all that critical an issue. Another African-American hero coming out of the ghetto and succeeding in life through his unique skills is Professor Cornel West. Dr. West speaks of being intellectually saved by being sent to school in “the vanilla side of town”, but spiritually being saved by receiving the love of God by way of his family and those at Shiloh Baptist Church. With less specifics given in the matter, West speaks of having been a gangster before meeting Jesus, and now being “a redeemed sinner with gangster proclivities.” In each case, if the hero in question wants to think of himself as a formerly murderous would-be gangster, as long as there are no victims of this gangster past still in need of compensation and closure, do the details really make any difference?

In Dr. Carson’s case the problem is not so much what he did or didn’t do in the years just after he hit puberty, but how he continues to moralize against those who are still stuck in the poverty he was able to escape from –– something Dr. West refers to as being “niggerized”.

The same sort of consideration would apply to Carson’s claims of having been offered a “scholarship” to West Point. Since no students at West Point pay fees or tuition of any sort, it would be fair to say that every student in the history of that institution has been there on a “full scholarship” in some sense of the word. As the student leader of the army ROTC at his high school, with high grades to boot (facts that investigators have not disputed), during the time when the army was trying to lure in as many new promising young leaders as possible to replace those lost in Viet Nam, it would be rather surprising if his professional army supervisors did not try to convince him to stay in the service, promising him the moon and the stars in terms of education in the process. The fact that he never applied, and therefore no offers on paper ever would have been sent to him, are rather beside the point. The fact that his way of describing the episode sounds rather clumsy at best to anyone who knows how America’s institutions of tertiary military education work is also beside the point; it can easily be written off as a ghost writer’s misunderstanding in his attempt to build a legend about the subject. The major question is what Carson was trying to prove in even raising the subject. Perhaps that in spite of his lack of actual adult military experience he was interested in and committed to the culture of the military industrial complex, in case any conservatives might otherwise have doubts about the matter. There seems to be little doubt regarding the truth of that underlying fact of his value orientation here at least. The rest is trivial details.

Was it true that Carson was the only one who fell for a practical joke of being told to sit an especially difficult “make-up exam” for a basic psychology class, with no chance to study? Quite probably. What does such an anecdote say about him –– both that he fell for the joke and that he mixed up so many of the details in retelling the matter afterwards? Perhaps that he was supremely self-confident already then, and that his exaggerated self-confidence is thus more than just “surgeon syndrome” –– the effect of his career on his personality. It also shows a lack of interest in principles of fairness for those who are struggling. After all, if people like his classmates would have been just as honest and hard-working as him…

But it is the last two questions that raise the most serious questions regarding Dr. Carson’s honesty and potential political leadership capacity. Regarding his theory on the pyramids, this shows either a complete lack of respect for scientific expertise –– of the academic, peer-reviewed sort –– in an area of scholarship somewhat distant from his own. It is rather disturbing for a “man of science” to have so little awareness of and respect for other scientific disciplines. For him to base his conclusions on all scientific claims outside of the field of medicine on their compatibility with a literal interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and pre-modern Christian traditional understandings of such things, does not speak very highly of his ability to assess new and process new information. If he, as president, would treat the perspectives of experts in economics, constitutional law, military intelligence, natural resource management and/or domestic infrastructure management with the same aloof disregard with which he relates to experts in Egyptology, the resulting catastrophes could be too horrible to contemplate! On the other hand, if Richard Dawkins is correct, and Dr. Carson really doesn’t believe all the scientifically absurd things he says ­–– he only says them because he knows that is what his less educated Christian fundamentalist followers want to hear –– that might make the case even worse.

And that brings us back around to the matter of Mannatech. In all fairness, Dr. Carson’s speech linked here was given before this company’s scandals properly came to light, and we don’t have any evidence of how he might have changed his tune in this decade after it had been legally and scientifically established that those who were paying his speaking fees there were hucksters of the least respectable sort. But we do know that in spite of this new information he continued to accept payment to speak at their sales meetings in recent years, and that he really couldn’t claim to have done so out of sheer ignorance regarding their operations. Nor, having so thoroughly endorsed their corporate philosophy in this video, and having continued to take their money, could he credibly claim that his face on their web page was some sort of unauthorized use of his image that he hadn’t had time to look into yet.

This points to what is perhaps the corest of Carson’s core values: hating the experience of poverty and doing everything in his power to insure that he never has to experience anything like it ever again. Part of that is keeping actual poor people at a distance and moralizing against their “lifestyle choices” which keep them poor. Part of it is continuously doing high paid publishing and speaking gigs to further feather his retirement nests, even when such gigs might call his intellectual and professional credibility into question. Yes he has generously donated money to try to encourage academic performance in America’s disadvantaged middle schools, by making sure that the best performing students get a prize with his name attached. Yes, he has spoken eloquently about Christian values pointing to some things more important than money. But all the while he has remained focused on being one of the rich who keeps getting richer, while having no qualms about letting the poor get poorer and explicitly blaming those in poverty for their own problems. He continuously faces the challenge of synchronizing this compulsion to “build bigger barns” with the message of Jesus, but fortunately (or unfortunately) for him there are plenty of “prosperity gospel” preachers out there to help him square that circle. The sacrifice they are most likely to ask for in return is in terms of surrendering his intellectual integrity to support their simple answers to complex problems –– things like curing cancer with sugar pills.

Running for president seems to be something Dr. Carson has allowed others to talk him into. He is useful to the oligarchs in terms of supporting their message that the rich should be allowed to get richer and the poor should be allowed to get poorer, and if he can further cement his place as part of the new oligarchy through this gesture, earning a few extra millions in the process, what’s to stop him? None of his major backers really expected anything more than that out of his campaign. They’ve really already got their money’s worth out of him, but if they can keep milking his message for another six months or so, so much the better for them. And if against all expectations he actually does become president (American voters have made crazier decisions) given how little he actually knows about the job, the seasoned oligarchs don’t figure that he’d be too hard to control.

It is those factors, rather than the details of Carson’s teenage rage, that people really need to be paying attention to. Put another way, he admits in the Mannatech video to having an ongoing tendency to take what others see as crazy risks. Given this risk-taking tendency of his, his lack of awareness of how so many non-medical things work, his pathological fear of poverty and his moral condemnation of the poor, how willing should we be to risk him becoming commander-in-chief of the world’s biggest military, and the chief executive of the world’s biggest economy? From there, what kinds of potential tragedies are we talking about if Americans vote to let “Jesus take the wheel” in this sort of way? I rather hope we don’t have to find out.

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Filed under Epistemology, Politics, Pop culture, Religion

Another Shooting Tragedy

I’ve got a number of half-finished essays that I’ve been writing since my little brush with death, but today I think it’s worth writing something fresh regarding the ten people who died in the senseless shooting incident in Oregon this week.

What deserves to be said here? I have to admit, in some way I sort of don’t want to know the details. Some crazy guy (it always has to be a guy, and to kill a bunch of strangers on purpose, without a commanding officer telling him to do so, we’d pretty much automatically label him as crazy) goes on a spree at a college of some sort. Of all those he gets bullets into he only manages to kill about half of them; maybe intentionally only killing those who identified themselves as Christians. One army veteran with a gun happened to be around, but his self-preservation instincts were strong enough to keep him from doing any stupid vigilante stuff with it. That thus screws up all the Second Amendment fundamentalists’ talking points, so “conservatives” need to find other fodder here. They turn to the fact that this particular crazy had a bug up his but about Christians, so they are thus able to make martyrs out of those who were senselessly gunned down. Meanwhile another former soldier, this one unarmed, but motivated with the intent of honoring his six-year-old son, rushes the crazy gunman, takes a few bullets himself, and somehow lives to tell about it.

So what are we supposed to think about all of this? Let me try to be brief for a change.

  1. Christians, especially West Coast style evangelicals, should not be proud of their ability to get people pissed off. Of course there is no justification for this shooting on religious grounds, but there is also no justification in taking pride in identification with the type of religious practice that prioritizes self-righteousness over social justice and sustainability, and which thereby has a tendency to drive those with weaker mental stability to start with over the edge. There isn’t really any justification for a martyr cult being built around this incident, and I would appreciate it if people I know would resist the temptation to participate in such.
  2. The most tragic element of a cliché shooting spree at an American educational institution is that it is such a cliché. We’ve seen this movie before, too many times. Talking points on both sides are strongly at risk of becoming self-parodies. From my perspective the worst of it is the Republican presidential candidates being in a race to trip over themselves in stressing how firmly opposed they are to common sense in limiting the civilian use of firearms in light of cases like this. But regardless, the victims here have become less important as people – victims of human tragedy – than as props within a repetitious argument over one of the more absurd aspects of the American political process. There is something about that that we need to be fundamentally disturbed by.
  3. On the other end of the issue, there is something disturbing about these particular 10 individuals who ended up dying last week getting more ink spilled in the international press than the thousands who have died from other preventable causes due to our collective political negligence. While the deaths of would-be martyrs are treated as abstractions rather than as tragic personal losses to the human family, at least they are somehow recognized. The hundreds who die in traffic accidents, for lack of proper health care, in drug-related street violence and through the business of routine remote warfare in the Middle East keep just getting swept under the rug. It’s hard to even suggest how we could keep these things in better perspective so that we don’t let these more “media-sexy” deaths distract us from other routine tragedies with far greater numbers of casualties involved. Maybe it’s good that cases like this no longer hold our attention.
  4. Once again the painfully ironic issue with a shooting at an educational institution in the United States is that it is the result of how utterly incompetent educational institutions in the United States have been in terms of teaching the basics of human rights theory. Only in the United States are people prone to think of the right to equip oneself to kill other people as a greater basic human right than education and/or health care for the general public. This gross blind spot is due to an essential failure in both curriculum planning and teaching practice in public education. This in turn is largely due to an obscene prioritization of military spending over education and social service spending as a matter of government policy since World War 2, and especially since the Reagan administration. It further adds to the irony of this tragedy that very few Americans understand the absurdity of this situation enough to be embarrassed about it.
  5. If there is something about this situation worth celebrating or commemorating, it is indeed the heroism of the single father, Chris Mintz, who took a number of bullets in an effort to make his world a safer place on his son’s sixth birthday. His son wasn’t in the room, but North Carolina native Mintz was in Oregon to begin with his on account of his son. He had begun the day by wishing his son a happy birthday, and after trying to block the shooters attacks on his college English class, his final words to the shooter before passing out were, “Today is my son’s birthday.” People really need to remember not just how brave this man was to risk his life for others, but how the thing he was willing to sacrifice his life for if necessary was the importance of fatherhood. Other fathers need to see how their children can and should be the most important thing in their lives. Other people should be more ready to respect the importance of this relationship to the men in question, even when the romance with the child’s mother doesn’t work. Fatherhood is different from motherhood, but just as important. This week’s tragic event should be taken as a reminder of that.

The rest I’ll leave up to each of you to ponder for yourselves. I just recommend that you do so in a spirit of thankfulness that for most of us life goes on this month.

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Filed under Death, Ethics, Human Rights

A Long Delayed Post-surgery Update Here

Most of my blog readers here are, I believe, among my circle of personal friends, so most of you are well aware of my recent crises in life without reading about them here. Even so, as I am now able to do so, I feel that providing an update on my personal and philosophical perspectives regarding these crises here is in order.

For those of you who are not aware, I have had a relatively close brush with my own mortality lately, in the form of emergency surgery to treat major heart failure, and the long-term prognosis on this actually at the time of this writing remains somewhat uncertain. Three months ago, at the time of the TSC conference, this condition was, in hindsight, clearly beginning to set in already, but at that time I never could have imagined what was happening, or that it could come to such a radically life-changing point so quickly. Here is my best retrospective summary of the situation as I now understand it:

In the late winter and early spring I suffered a serious case of bronchitis, which was at its worst during the time of my second Kenya trip. I received various sorts of treatments for that illness, but its primary source remains largely shrouded in mystery. In any case, I looked at most of the health challenges I experienced over the spring as being related to after-effects of this event. During the spring it seems I was never entirely free of some form of coughs and aches, but I felt well able to go on with life, including purchasing and beginning work on my “country place” in the village of Matku. Beginning the deconstruction of the old farm house there also involved its own health risks in terms of moldy air and chances to injure myself, but in the current level of hindsight, that project seems not to have been the source of any of my later symptoms.

The first significant alarm to go off regarding my long-term health came about in April, while I was actually in Matku: I woke up there on a Saturday morning with no vision in my right eye. I have experienced temporary “grey-outs” of parts of my field of vision relating to stress and fatigue for many years, and I was told that such are quite normal for middle-aged men, so I didn’t panic in relation to this, but over the course of the day the vision didn’t return as usual; or it did only partially, for about half of that eye’s field of vision. For a few days I continued trying to go about my business as usual with it, waiting for it to sort itself out, but eventually I went to the health center to have it looked at, and was in turn referred to Helsinki’s main ophthalmological clinic for testing. I spent two days there as an out-patient, going through a battery of tests that never really got to the bottom of the situation. This may or may not have been the first strong hint that my heart was in trouble.

This combined with an increasingly disturbing cough over the course of May and June. I maintained my full, legendary vocal power through the middle of June at least, but increasingly as I spent time speaking with people I would have powerful coughing outbursts, combined with ever increasing dizziness and shortness of breath. Friends began increasingly to tell me that I needed to see a doctor about that, and I largely agreed. That wasn’t particularly convenient though: Presenting my coughing symptoms at the health center in June, they didn’t see anything urgent about the matter, and they did not have any non-emergency appointment times available until later in July. I had already booked flights to spend most of July in Kenya, and with that work being very important to me I decided to let it slide. So with an increasingly nagging cough and occasional shortness of breath, I left on my speaking trip to Kenya regardless.

I tried to pace myself carefully over the course of that trip, which still involved plenty of elements which would be physically challenging even for a perfectly healthy middle-aged man. I was able to keep up most of the time though, and able to control the cough during public speaking events by keeping sufficient supplies of bottled water and tea close by. Later on I will publish a more detailed account of the new perspectives I gained from the Kenyan visit; for now I’ll just say I survived it physically, but by the time I boarded the plane for home I knew I needed to get to western medical services as soon as possible.

I got back into Finland on a Tuesday evening, and got to my local health center first thing Wednesday morning. I was given an emergency appointment with a GP for that afternoon. The doctor in question was very young and obviously rather nervous about venturing a diagnosis with all of the variables in my case, but he had the laboratory there run an EKG on me, and from that he could see that things were not entirely normal. He sent me over to have tests at Jorvi, the local general hospital for the area, with his first concern being to rule out the risk that my violent coughing had led to a blood clot making its way to my heart.

I spent the next 7 hours at that hospital. They did a chest x-ray, more EKGs, more blood test and more stethoscope listening, without finding any clear evidence of what was wrong with me. By that time my heart was certainly down to less than 40% of its normal capacity, but they heard no murmurs and saw no clear sign of damage in the x-ray, so in the end they sent me home with a new inhaler system to ease my breathing difficulties and instructions to come back if things got worse.

The following day, Thursday, I spent running an errand of picking up my van from a repair shop where I had left it while I was in Kenya, and getting it back home to Espoo to be re-inspected for the year. That once again was an exercise in pushing my strength to its limits, and knowing that things were just not right. The next day at lunch time I returned to the health center, prepared to be sent back to the hospital for a longer stay… only that wasn’t to happen just yet. The duty doctor there looked at my paper work and told me that there could be no risk of heart problems after all the tests I had just had done less than two days earlier. She told me I was probably suffering from dehydration in addition to the cough, she wrote me a prescription for a heavier narcotic cough syrup and told me to go drink lots of mineral water. The help from that advice was marginal. The main thing it did was to cause rather sudden bloating in my legs and stomach area as the mineral water stayed in my system as excess fluid.

From there, with the school year soon to start, I took my business over to the city workers’ employment health service. The doctor there, who has the job of trying to keep city workers physically able to do their jobs, wasn’t quite sure what to make of my condition. He did all the routine examination sorts of things, gave me papers excusing me from my first week’s work, sent me to have more lab tests done, and told me to book another appointment with the secretary for the next week. The next week he told me that my blood was running somewhat low on iron, but that nothing else obvious had popped up in the lab results. They had ruled out a few rarer diseases that some of my co-workers had suggested might be the cause of my problems, but they didn’t answer the question of why I still couldn’t breathe or operate normally. So from there I was given another week’s worth of sick leave, sent back for more lab tests related to the anemia issue and told to come back again in a week. The next time it was much the same song and dance, but this time the order for lab tests I was sent away with included a fresh EKG. That’s where things started to move real fast all of the sudden.

It had been an early morning appointment so I went over to have the tests done right away. I had to climb one flight of stairs to get to the laboratory, and when the EKG was done 15 minutes later my pulse was still racing from that level of basic exertion. The lab tech took a look at the readout and said, “You should probably show this to the doctor right away.” So back across the street to his office I went. The doctor seemed more puzzled than anything else by the paper, but from there he said, “Well, just to be safe, the city can pay for you to see a private cardiologist on this one,” and he proceeded to write up the basic referral paperwork. So from there I drove over to the closest office for the private medical associates’ office that the city of Espoo has this sort of arrangement with, stopping off at school along the way for a brief chat with my substitute teacher, colleagues and boss. At the first office of the private medical company that I went to they told me that their own in-house cardiologist had his next available appointment time in a week and a half. I told them it probably needed to be sooner than that. They made a few phone calls and asked me if I could see someone in Helsinki already that afternoon. Of course. So at 3:00 in the afternoon on Thursday, August 20th I saw my first cardiologist. This veteran doctor read through my papers, ran a quick blood pressure check and EKG test of his own, took me across the hallway for a look at my heart with his ultrasound machine, and pronounced, “You need to be in a hospital!” The only new information he gave me was that there was a layer of fluid surrounding the heart over a centimeter thick, and that tests needed to be done to see where that was coming from. So from there it was directly back to Jorvi hospital with me.

The hospital’s cardiologist had already gone home for the day already by the time I got there Thursday, so they just got me into their stylish hospital pajamas and onto a bunch of monitors and under general observation that evening. To the best of my knowledge it was the first night I had spent in a hospital since getting out of the one I was born in over 53 years earlier. It was a pretty good run while it lasted.

Jorvi’s cardiologist arrived on rounds with his ultra-sound machine after lunch the next day. Notes from the hospital’s other doctors and my papers from the city health service hadn’t given him a clue as to what was actually wrong with me. He spent a while poking around and pressing into my chest with that jell-covered wand and after a period of uncomfortable silence I asked him it my valves looked OK. He said they looked quite good, and I was starting to joke about that side of things when suddenly his face went grey. “I spoke too soon about the valves,” he said.

He continued poking around and pressing buttons to capture images for a couple of minutes before he began to address my growing shock. The aortic valve at the bottom of the heart seemed to be entirely calcified –– frozen in place –– and the rest of the heart was literally fighting for dear life to keep some sort of blood flow going through this obstruction. This seemed quite clearly to come from a defect that my heart carried basically from birth, which had probably been giving a murmur before, but which, as it decayed further and hardened up with age, became less audibly noticeable in routine check-ups and the like. Now it had gone critical. It was clear to the doctor that I would need surgery on this right away, but he was trying to say so indirectly out of sensitivity to my shock.

The doctor packed up his papers and went to make some phone calls. He came back with a couple of the hospital’s young interns in tow about 10 minutes later to give them a quick guided tour of what a real live heart in critical condition looks like, giving them turns with the ultrasound wand to help them learn to track down such a defect for themselves. They seemed quite fascinated and appreciative of the learning opportunity. For me this was somewhat strange: I’ve always sort of wanted my body to be of interest to intelligent young women, but not quite in that way.

I was still laying there sort of digesting the shock when the cardiologist returned again, announcing that, because they would not have any heart specialists on duty at Jorvi over the weekend, he had arranged to send me to Meilahti: Helsinki’s main hospital for specialized heart treatment. As I started calling to inform my sons of this up-coming transfer I still had no idea that within 24 hours I would be undergoing massive open-heart surgery! But there it was. By the time the boys stopped in to see me in Meilahti that evening the surgeons and specialists had already taken a further set of high resolution images of my heart to guide them in the surgery scheduled for 9:00 the next morning…

My chest 15 days after the surgery.

My chest 15 days after the surgery.

So skipping over some of the details of the ups and downs of the recovery process since, that brings me to where I am now. For two and a half weeks now my heart has been pumping through a man-made valve, and trying to figure out how to relate to this new situation. It’s not as though my heart is saying, “Wow, now that you’ve got those restrictions out of the way I feel so much better! I can really get into this work again!” Nor is it saying, “What the hell are you doing to me? I can’t take this shit anymore!” It’s more of an in-between reaction like, “This is really strange. I’ve never tried anything like this before and frankly I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do about it. Isn’t there anything else you can tell me?” So they’ve been watching it carefully and trying to give it all the chemical encouragement they can to adjust to this new situation, but still with no guarantees that it’s going to work long-term. That’s sort of a freaky place to be at. All this beside the fact that I never really had time to prepare for the idea of joining the ranks of open heart surgery veterans to begin with.

So how have my religious and philosophical perspectives come into play here? What help has all my extra thinking on “the big questions of life” given me under the circumstances? What new thoughts and feelings come to mind in light of these transitions?

In some ways the experience is comparable to losing one’s virginity: Before ever having sex I sort of knew already how these things work, what sort of feelings should be involved and what the experience might mean in terms of the connection between my partner and I, but then there is a whole different level of understanding that comes with actually experiencing it. So it is as well with the existential experience of facing the possibility that your body has reached the end of its lifespan. Not that this is the first time I’ve realized that an ever so slight shift in recent circumstances could have resulted in my death, nor was it the first time I’ve realized that my body is showing signs of being past its prime; but I’ve now come to the point where I have to admit that, had I lived more than 100 years earlier in history, I would have inevitably have been dead now. I’m not that old, but for the body I was given I’m now on borrowed time already. That’s just the medical fact of the matter. That new experiential perspective does something to all of my contemplations of the meaning of life and all that where it’s almost like, “Yes, I get it more now.” Not that I felt like I hadn’t got it before, but there’s something about the actual experience of a strong encounter with one’s mortality that only comes with actually facing that experience.

The other significant thing that comes to mind in all this is the issue of finding a balance between maintaining a passion to live in every possible way and being at peace with letting go of things that I’ve always known were meant to be temporary. That’s one I’m still working on though. I’ll try to update you as I learn more about myself as that process goes on.

Meanwhile, however, going through this sort of experience, especially in the digital age, has given me wonderful opportunities to see the sort of warm and caring friends I have around the world. There’s something humbling about having people on six continents aware of my crisis, caring about what happens to me and in their own ways praying for me. I am full of gratitude for being able to have such a rich life in this regard. For those of you who have been part of this support network, may God richly bless you with the same sort of support you have given to me when you face your own times of crisis. I can think of nothing better to wish for you.

Peace, David


Filed under Death, Empathy, Spirituality

Homosexuality and African Ethics

I will be in a challenging position next week. Over the next few weeks I will once again be visiting Kenya, working on building cooperation with local churches there so that they can do their own work and fulfil their own spiritual calling better. This will inevitably involve extended discussions of the core ethical teachings of Christianity, and that in turn is rather likely to come back to the matter of toleration for and even full acceptance of homosexuality in (post-)Christian western cultures. My perspective is inevitably going to be very different from theirs, and I want to carefully consider how to approach the issue in a way that opens fresh perspectives for them without scandalizing them or frightening them away.

20150218_112840For some of my more secularized friends the phrase “fulfil their spiritual calling” may be rather scary sounding, so let me try to partially unpack what that means to me. I believe that the strongest teaching Jesus gave to his followers regarding the difference between those who are on God’s Kingdom’s side and those who are functionally in opposition to God’s Kingdom is in the end of Matthew chapter 25. (The connection between this teaching and the two parables which preface it is an interesting sermon unto itself, but we’ll leave that for another time.) In short, in the last 16 verses of this chapter — which is where Jesus comes the closest to talking about heaven and hell in the sort of terms that evangelicals and Catholics are most familiar with — the factors which distinguish those bound for heaven and those bound for hell are simply their efforts to care for those lacking food, drink, shelter, clothing, medical care and companionship. Nothing there about doctrinal purity; just a strict emphasis on showing God’s love to others in practical terms. That is what I believe churches in Africa in particular are spiritually called to do. Many of them do it quite well; others miss the mark by a considerable distance.

Meanwhile, for myself and other western Christians who take Jesus’ message seriously, finding partners who can help us help others is an extremely important part of following the Lord’s teaching. In the case of finding ways to help those in Africa with the six sorts of needs Jesus talks about, the options are essentially of four sorts: 1) supporting the work of local governments, 2) establishing or patronizing successful businesses there which work with responsible local partners (Fair Trade produce, etc.) 3) giving direct assistance by way of trustworthy secular non-governmental organizations, or 4) giving direct assistance by way of faith-based organizations (churches). Each of these approaches has its pros and cons, and all of them have their fair share of con-men involved. In simple terms though, those who are acting out of a sense of responsibility to a higher power do, on average, the most efficient work in terms of channeling the practical aid they receive to those who need it most. More human suffering is eliminated per dollar donated through church groups than through any of the other three channels.

But besides basic dishonesty and greed being found in churches as well, when it comes to the process of helping others, church leaders are also among the most poorly educated and most naïve of partners there at times. Also it is sometimes difficult for them to see a connection between providing practical aid and preaching the message of the Bible as they basically understand it. And like western Christians, African church leaders also have a tendency at times to believe that their prejudices and cultural traditions represent God’s will for mankind. Thus part of what I am trying to do on these African adventures is to build a sort of educational network to help keep church leaders there honest and responsible to each other, and to help them build a greater practical understanding of how the gospel message can be understood and applied in ways that make us more like the “sheep” than the “goats” in Matthew 25.

DSCF2920There are strict atheists who don’t believe that Christianity really does any humanitarian good, and there are Christians who believe that convincing as many as possible to swear allegiance to their brand of belief is more important than humanitarian work per se. I believe both are wrong, but I don’t want to take the bandwidth here to argue against those positions. If you disagree with my premises as stated above all I can say for now is that I wish you the best of luck in finding your own purpose in life elsewhere, and goodbye for now. Meanwhile, back to the challenge stated at the beginning: dealing with the questions of homosexual rights and gay marriage in the context of this mission.

Let me state a few things from the outset regarding this issue. First of all I happen to have friends –– good friends in fact –– on both sides of this issue, for whom the whole idea of calling their convictions into question even is highly offensive. Those on both sides are thus just going to have to bear with me; or otherwise walk off in disgust and stick to your respective safe social circles where no one contradicts your views on this highly polarized issue. Second, Kenya, and equatorial Africa in general, has a series of very different cultures than our own when it comes to sexuality, gender roles, family ties and social acceptability in all of these areas. Europeans have, over the past few centuries in particular, frequently tried to step in and “repair” Africans’ “primitive” social structures in these regards. Some of these interventions have been more justifiable than others. As it is, Kenyan culture and the ancient Jewish culture of the Bible are probably far closer to each other than either culture is to that of the modern west. This necessitates a certain caution and humility on the part of any and all of us who wish to try to help there in any sense. Third, this relates to profound questions regarding the basic essence and purpose of sexuality, and how that in turn relates to spirituality, in ways that I can barely scratch the surface of here and in ways that could be very difficult to speak about to essentially uneducated African churchmen. Then finally, and perhaps most importantly, I can easily anticipate critics of my ideas here from the conservative side saying that by raising questions about what these leaders are dogmatically motivated to fight against in the name of Christ, I could be seriously damaging their motivation and effectiveness as Christian leaders (and in the same regard some aggressive atheists might hope I will limit the effective spread of the Christian message in this sense).  To these people I say that, as powerful as hatred and dogmatic false certainty are as motivational tools, in the long run they do more harm than good, and the Christian message will go forward stronger and healthier without them. Your perspective may differ, but I’m sticking to my convictions on that one.

So let me start the actual discussion of the matter with a premise from my own personal philosophy: The most ultimately fulfilling forms of human pursuits are those which give us a sense of either confidence or connection or both. The most satisfied and fulfilled people are those who are convinced that they are good at what they do and that they are part of something bigger than themselves. The point of religion and/or spirituality –– including the “Kingdom of God” that Jesus came to proclaim and enact –– is to enable people to find these forms of satisfaction in life in deeper ways. If a person’s or a group’s faith isn’t working in these regards, then it isn’t working, period. But that being said, there are always difficulties involved in choosing what sorts of things to base our confidence on; and there are limits as to how deeply we can love which sorts of people without driving ourselves crazy, literally. Loving everyone, completely, would involve making all of their problems and conflicts in life part of my own life, and none of us have that sort of capacity. Thus religion provides us with standards by which we can have some idea of what to expect of ourselves, what we can justifiably feel proud of or confident about, what we can justifiably expect of others behavior-wise, and what sorts of abusive and destructive behaviors we should stand up against.

So there are good practical reasons for having doctrinal standards in general, and those of the Christian tradition have stood the test of time fairly well, but there are still good reasons to think critically about how important those standards have become to us as ends unto themselves, rather than as means enabling us to better love God completely and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. There are a number of good reasons to frame the question in these terms, but the simplest might be in terms of telling the story of King David.

David had a pretty adventurous life, in which he “bent the rules” on plenty of occasions. One particular occasion which stands out is in 1 Samuel chapters 21 and 22, where David is on the run from crazy King Saul. In making his get-away he stops off in the town of Nob to talk to the priest there and get supplies. David flat out lies to the priest, saying he is on an urgent secret mission for the king, and he then takes as basic food the bread which has already been ceremonially dedicated and set aside for only priests to eat. While he was there he also saw a character he didn’t particularly trust, a foreigner named Doeg, but he didn’t actually say anything about his suspicions or warn the priest that if he was caught helping him he could be in big trouble with Saul. And as it happened, this foreigner did go and tell Saul that the priest of Nob had been helping David. Saul went ape poop crazy about this, and when he wanted the priest and his extended family massacred in a revenge killing, and none of his regular soldiers were willing to do it, this same Doeg took care of the bloody deed for him. One kid from the priest’s family did manage to escape with his life though, and he ran to tell David about the matter. David basically told the kid, “It’s all my fault. I’m sorry. I’ll protect you.”

Skip forward to the Gospels. One of the tales which is told in each of the synoptic gospels is how Jesus responded when the Pharisees tried to bust him for breaking some of the more trivial rules regarding manual labor on the Sabbath day. Jesus and his disciples were picking heads of ripe grain, rolling them between their palms to get the kernels out, and snacking on them. From the Pharisee’s perspective this was clearly “work” that was forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus’ response was to first of all remind them of the story from 1 Samuel 21: “David was not blamed for bending the rules; why should you condemn my friends and I for a far more trivial infraction?” (Mark 2:23-26, for one telling.)

032311_2057_REVIEWINGTH10But then going back to the Old Testament history of the matter, David was never actually condemned for this rather questionable move on his part, nor for the vast majority of his careless, selfish or bloodthirsty maneuvers during his life. In fact, when David’s descendants turn out to be a batch of first class idiots, over and over again we read that in spite of their misadventures, “for the sake of his servant David, the Lord was not willing to destroy Judah” (e.g. 2 Kings 8:9). And in particular there was only one event in his life for which David was morally censured by the Old Testament historians: “the case of Uriah the Hittite.” We’ll come back to that one. The point is that strict observation of the rules was not the thing that made David, or Jesus, so important. Loving God completely and caring for those around them continuously (or nearly continuously in David’s case) was what set their lives apart. The rest, from their perspectives, was details.

So how does this relate to the Bible’s, or Christianity’s, rules about sex? Touchy subject, but I sort of have to tackle it here. Basically it is recognized that sexual release is something that all healthy people want, perhaps even need, but that letting that go unrestrained can cause all sorts of problems. The spread of disease was not actually mentioned by the Biblical writers, but it is an obvious related issue. More important to the ancient Jews was the matter of keeping their bloodlines going. In essence sex, from the Old Testament legal perspective, was supposed to be used for that procreative purpose and that purpose alone. Stated briefly, that made a lot of sense for its time, but it doesn’t really work so well these days.

Going through this rather quickly, there are three essential problems with maintaining that procreation only standard for sex today:
1) It relates to a scientifically outdated perspective coming from Aristotle that there are complete “souls” contained in a man’s sperm, and that these souls need to be respected and only released in places where they can grow into complete human beings. We now know that sperm contains no complete patterns for people, making its sacredness as such more questionable.
2) Maximizing human populations is, for many reasons, not a particularly wise or even moral strategy these days: It leads to millions of children ending up in pain and suffering, and strains the resources of the environments in which these clans try to sustain themselves. And then,
3) There are many valuable things about sex as a bonding experience between the couple who share this experience with each other, whether or not they are hoping to make babies in the process, that religion would be foolish to belittle as such.

So with these things in mind, how should sex be regulated and restricted so as to enable the greatest benefit in terms of enabling people to feel good about themselves and connect with each other in positive ways; yet without spreading diseases, without abusively using each other’s bodies for otherwise meaningless sexual satisfaction, without making excessive numbers of babies who are doomed to suffer hunger and neglect, and especially without cheapening the meaning of sex as a way in which two people can become part of each other in the deepest sense?

To be honest, we really don’t have any new set of rules that perfectly answer all the complicated questions involved in balancing the harms and benefits of different aspects of human sexuality. In every society we still have problems of rape, STDs, children in crises from physical and emotional neglect, and couples in crises with issues of jealousy, possessiveness, sexual frustrations and unfaithfulness in their relationships. It would be perhaps a bit naïve to say that there was a time or place where people didn’t have these problems, but it would be even more naïve to believe that we are getting closer to ideal moral solutions to them. The main issue is that within churches and communities we need to remain honest regarding the challenges we are dealing with here, and we keep trying to share our “best practices” with each other when it comes to confronting these issues, without attacking those who fail to meet our standards for purity in the process. (One exception is that those whose sexual carelessness and cruelty seriously damages the lives of others –– rapists, child abusers, reckless sexual adventurers breaking promises to committed spouses, and the like –– thoroughly deserve to be condemned for these practices. These are not matters of lacking ritual purity; they are matters of selfish cruelty.)

All that being said, the perfect ideal which the vast majority of people have in mind regarding their sexuality –– which has been remarkably standard for the majority in most human cultures throughout human history –– is for each of us to be able to find some healthy partner of the opposite sex, who shares a desire for the two of you to share life with each other. This should theoretically involve completely satisfying each other’s sexual desires so neither feels a need to look elsewhere for such satisfaction, and in this process the two of you would parent a manageable number of children together, each of whom feels completely wanted and each of whom can aspire to someday having for him- or herself the same sort of wonderful relationship that you have with your spouse. Those are the primary aspects of our ideals for sex and marriage; the rest is details.

Sadly in real life things hardly ever work out that way, so in hundreds of little ways we need to work out how to deal with situations where key aspects of this ideal break down on us. What are we going to accept as “close enough” to be acknowledged as a socially acceptable pair bond, with an assumed private sexual practice involved? How do we regard those who have children outside of the context of a legally committed sexual relationship? What are acceptable grounds for dissolving such a bond between two people? Who will we allow to raise children that are not born into an ideally functioning family unit? In what ways can we allow these sorts of compromises without further weakening the standing of the generalized ideal within the society?

In practice these are issues that each couple, each church, each local community, each ethnic traditional culture, and each level of civil government needs to work out for itself. The bases for deciding which “non-ideal” practices are acceptable and which aren’t really isn’t something that God has carved in stone and given a simple, eternal blueprint for mankind. Those who are looking for simple, absolutely certain answers to moral questions, particularly regarding sexuality, face continuous disappointment in reading the Bible. What we do have there is a guiding pair of ideals –– to love God and to love each other –– and a complex, immanently human set of stories and guidelines for realizing those ideals. We need to acknowledge that our societal rules are very much a work in process in this regard.

Part of this challenge is for churches to work out their own systems for stabilizing family relationships within their community of faith. In doing this sometimes they need to set stricter standards than the rest of society regarding how close to their religious ideals for marriage a couple has to be before the church is willing to formally acknowledge their relationship as legitimate –– in other words, to marry them. It is part of freedom of religion in most countries that churches are allowed to make such decisions for themselves. If someone has been divorced and remarried five or six times, the church is not required to conduct a new wedding ceremony for them, or to acknowledge their remarriage as “accepted by God”. Likewise religious communities are not forced to ceremonially accept mixed marriages, where someone from their community chooses to take a spouse from outside of that community. Sometimes these decisions are made purely on the basis of prejudice, but often they are made in good faith as an attempt to keep their system for reinforcing family life as viable as possible.

So then we come to the question of what to do about that minority within our communities whose sexual attraction is primarily to those of the same sex. Can we somehow “cure” them so that they can fit in with the standard ideal for sexuality as a basis for, and restricted to, the process of building a family with someone of the opposite sex? Can we just require them to live without sex for their entire life and leave it at that? Should we consider this orientation to be a form of sexual irresponsibility on their part and punish them for having such desires? Frankly religious communities have tried all three of these approaches, and many imaginative combinations thereof, with rather problematic results: Some are “successfully cured”. Others are driven to suicide. And then we find a broad continuum of results in between these two extremes.

What has been historically changing over the course of my lifetime is that same-sex attraction is no longer treated as an illness by medical and social work professionals, and from there the process of accepting those who experience such attractions as “normal” members of western societies has been moving forward relatively rapidly. Now last week the United States as joined a number of other countries in which same-sex couples who wish to have their personally committed homosexual relationships legally recognized as marriages have the right to be married, and to have their marriages legally recognized as such wherever in the country they happen to go.

In different cultures –– particularly those where the “proper roles” of men and women are very much separated and distinguished from each other –– this sort of development creates an especially painful crisis: for a man to sexually “play the role of a woman,” or visa-versa, messes up their whole perspective on how life is supposed to work. For a society to fully accept such a private sexual practice as normal is just too mind-blowing for them. This seems to be particularly true in many parts of Africa.

To my African brothers and sisters who are particularly bothered by this issue I would like to stress the following:

  1. Churches are not being required to sacramentally accept homosexual marriages as unions “joined together by God”. Any given church can still choose whether it will see whether such unions are close enough to what family is intended to be to offer their blessing. What they cannot do is legally refuse to acknowledge these people as full members of the secular society, having the same legal rights based on commitment to each other that “traditional married couples” have. Churches are still allowed to preach against homosexuality as much as they are allowed to preach against divorce, but when it goes as far as encouraging attacks against those who are divorced or gay, that becomes a different matter, regarding which what was wrong before is still wrong now.
  2. In spite of what some evangelists or radical Muslims may try to tell you, recent natural disasters are not the result of people in those areas getting too free with their sex lives. That isn’t how God works. I have my own perspective on what motivates some people to preach those sorts of things, but that’s for another time.
  3. Gender roles are changing, and that really has nothing to do with homosexuality. It is still true that in many African villages that women still must eat separately from men, after they have finished serving the men. Such practices are not seen as “normal” in western society, even if they are quite in line with how things were done in Jesus’ time. Trying to prevent these things from changing, or trying to change them back to the way they were in the times of our forefathers, is really not going to do any good. The roles of women and the roles of men are getting closer to each other all the time as a function of education being available to both boys and girls, and modern technology that is used in the workplace being just as easily operable for men and women. Blaming homosexuals for the way these things are changing, and the uncertainty these changes may cause in family life, is certainly unjustified.
  4. Again I must stress that rather than reacting with hate against things we find sinful or distasteful, the emphasis of the Christian message needs to be on building our capacities to love God and each other. The balance here is that part of loving each other is preventing people from doing things to harm themselves and each other, and that would include matters related to sexuality. But whatever we may agree or disagree about in terms of the details of what constitutes “harm” here, we need to keep the premise of learning to better love God and each other in mind when addressing the issue.

Beyond that I’m not going to tell people what they have to believe on this matter. It is a very complicated and culturally relative thing, and it is not my job to tell them how to organize their societies in terms of gender roles. I will continue to preach the Twin Commandment of Love, and I will continue to do what I can to improve education equally for girls and boys, and to improve access to technological means of improving productivity there for both women and men, but I will leave it up to the people themselves to work out the implications of these things for family life. After all, it’s not as though I’ve proven that I have that whole business figured out for myself…

But I promised that I’d come back to the case of Uriah the Hittite. Perhaps you know the story already. One of David’s main commanders, who happened to be a foreigner in Israel, had a particularly hot wife named Bathsheba… But before going any further with the story (which you can read for yourself in 2 Samuel 11), let me toss in a speculative detail to the reading that might put it in a different light: what if Uriah was actually gay?

It is not unknown for attractive women to feel most comfortable with gay men, who are not so overwhelmed by their attractiveness and thus find it easier to talk to them as people. It is also not unknown for gay men of the ancient world to have taken wives for themselves as matters of keeping up “normal” social appearances. For a Hittite immigrant to ancient Israel and a convert to the religion of Israel, keeping up appearances would have been particularly important. Then we have the fact that Bathsheba was being a bit of an exhibitionist, washing nude on her roof below the castle, in the spring when the armies had gone off to fight but the king was known to have stayed home. She had just finished with her period, reminding her once again that her husband wasn’t about to get her pregnant any time soon, so…

6581240257_e1a86586cd_bDavid gets all excited, has her brought up to the castle, spends a night with her, accidentally gets her pregnant, and then has to figure out what to do about it. He does everything in his power to get Uriah down to the house and into bed with his wife soon enough so that he’d think the child was his, but none of it works. Even stoned drunk, with an engraved invitation from his commander and chief to go spend some conjugal time with the Mrs., Uriah feels more inclined to go be with the guys in the barracks. What does that tell you?

So then David does the one thing that, of all of the crazy things he had done in his life, God gets angry with him about: he has Uriah killed. He puts matters in the hands of Joab, a real Machiavellian sleaze if ever there was one. He lets Joab know, subtly, that Uriah should die in battle. They were in the process of starving out an enemy city, but Joab has a sudden change in strategy: he sends Uriah’s unit up against the main fortifications so as to rattle their defenses a bit. Strategically it was a bone-headed move, but Joab told the messenger, “If the king gets pissed about this just tell him, ‘Uriah died in the attack,’ and that should cool him off.” So it went. So God became displeased. Of all of David’s misadventures, that was the one where he actually intentionally betrayed someone loyal to him; someone who perhaps happened to be gay, with that playing a role in why the king had him killed.

The point: hating and attacking people because of their sexual inclinations is not something we can excuse as being in any way part of “God’s work”. Thus however you need to work out your system for making families stronger, scapegoating and attacking gays as a source of the problem is not an acceptable way of doing things. Chew on that for a bit.

Sorry for rambling on for so long!

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Filed under Ethics, Religion, Tolerance

Thinking of the Senior

There are many things in the news and in my personal intellectual explorations to be written about this week, but I have to set those aside for the moment to acknowledge today as Father’s Day in the United States and a few other countries. (Finland has its Father’s Day in November for some reason, but that’s beside the point; part of me is still very much American.) In fact with all the fuss here over Midsummer I would have forgotten this holiday entirely were it not for some touching posts by some of my Facebook friends.

I’ll leave aside the question of how being a father changed my own life and how it continues to be central to who I am, even though at this point my own sons are very much on their own and rarely in touch more than once or twice a month these days. I fully accept that, because at their ages I was even less in touch with my own father. What I want to say is something about how my relationship with my own father has laid the groundwork for who I have become, and the sort of credit and blame he deserves in that regard. I’m pretty much at peace with who I am, so I happen to think of it primarily as giving him the credit he deserves, but those who have a more critical perspective regarding me as a person might want to blame try to him for part of what I like about myself.

20150621_193037I write this sitting in the little camper trailer that I have as a working residence on the “job site” of the country place I bought this winter, with money from a small stock portfolio that my father transferred into my name sometime a while ago; I’m not exactly sure when. There were times when my sons were much younger when I really would have liked to start this sort of project, but for lack of money I was unable to, but such is life. The uniqueness of this current opportunity would have been lost had I been able to follow in my father’s footsteps too closely in that regard. Let me unpack that a bit for you.

I am in fact the last of my siblings to start reenacting one aspect of our unusual childhood that we all found particularly valuable: “The Farm”. The original farm, as far as we were concerned, was a place on the Massachusetts/Vermont border that Dad bought back when he was living and working as a business consultant in New York City –– back when he was in his early thirties and none of us kids had hit puberty yet. It was a small former dairy farm in a town called Heath, with a fair amount of open field space, a line of old apple trees across its wind-swept gentle ridge line out back, a classic New England stone fence along the north side of the property, a forested patch with lots of sugar maples running along its western border; and a house, a barn and a few odd out-buildings, each with their own serious structural challenges. We worked together, with a few odd hired helpers and experts, to repair and rebuild this place into an environment that we each in our own way found to be therapeutic.

The letting go of this place was a sort of emotionally complex experience for each of us, and we each in our own way tried to hold onto part of it, while at the same time “being honest with ourselves” about the whole matter: what we were each able to take away from the place emotionally, what aspects of the experience we could hope to recreate and build on later, and what limitations there were to the experience for each of us to try to overcome in our respective re-creations thereof. So here’s my current retrospective on that formative experience meant in my own life.

The word “heath”, for which the town was named, is not all that actively used in everyday speech anymore, but it basically refers to an area where the soil is poorer than that of the surrounding territory and where farming becomes a lot more difficult. Though strictly speaking not much of the town was composed of heathland in the strictest sense, the name was still appropriate. It was not a particularly highly prized area: no major national parks or tourist attractions close by to speak of; just relaxed farmlands where white people had got rid of the native Mohawk tribes centuries ago, and where they had been trying to eke out a modest living for themselves from the stony soil ever since. It was as generic as rural New England gets. Yet for our purposes that was perfect. It was a place to practice skills of simple self-sufficiency, to get nostalgic for simpler ways of life, and to have the space to find a sense of peace with oneself.

The Heath farm had its own collection of “interesting” neighbors. There was the family in the next house to the north who would very much have been “hillbillies” had they lived in the southern half of the Appalachian chain rather than its northern end. They lived a rather poor, simple life, killing whatever non-domesticated animals happened to wander through their fields for food, regardless of whether those creatures were “in season” or not. My brother brought his pet rabbit over to their house to get together with their rabbits for breeding purposes (successfully), and we got a second rabbit in exchange for the service, but that was about the extent of our interaction with them.

Across the street from them lived the manager of the Montgomery Ward’s catalog shop in the closest proper shopping district (thirty-some kilometers away). That fellow and his wife seemed to have a sort of dream of living simply but stylishly off the land, in harmony with nature, but in all sorts of little details it never seemed to work for them, particularly when it came to their animals. They had a set of very expensive bird hunting dogs that never really learned to hunt, in spite of their spending more on a state-of-the-art training collar than I’ve ever spent on a car in the years since. They also had a cow that they never really learned to milk. In fact the milking process turned into such a brutal daily a contest of wills between man and cow, driving the latter to panic and the former to frustrated hysterics, that they had to virtually give the beast away for the safety of all concerned. It was quite the show while it lasted though. This couple also happened to provide the strongest basic supply of neighborhood gossip for anyone who was interested in such. Even so, they were probably the neighbors on that road that Dad built the strongest friendship with.

Then sort of across the street from our place, a bit to the south, was this academic researcher of some sort, who I never actually got to talk to other than seeing him drive doing various errands with his old red tractor, yelling, “Hello neighbor!” to everyone whose path he crossed. He had a reputation for trying to borrow things a bit too freely, for taking other little liberties on other people’s property and for generally not fitting in with the local community. More than anything else, Dad seemed to be concerned about not being too closely compared with him.

The next piece of property south of there, on both sides of the road, belonged to the last working dairy farm in the area. Dad always appreciated this particular farmer’s work ethic, and they both clearly enjoyed chatting together about all things practical and agriculture-related. But on some level there were differences between their perspectives that mutual respect wasn’t going to cover. The farmer was part of one of the “original” families in the town, who all kept a certain emotional distance from the various “newcomers”, and beyond that he had his own private stresses in life. He had a batch of kids, none of whom were all that interested in following in his footsteps. Meanwhile no one ever seemed to see his wife, until one day the news came out that she had died, from liver failure as rumor had it. It wasn’t too long after that, when the last of his kids were ready to leave the nest, that the farmer sold off everything, pulled up stakes and left town, not looking back. But by that time we too were starting to emotionally let go of our connection with the area.

Looking back at that time it’s easy to conclude that the Heath farm was part of a particular era in Dad’s life that had was quite thoroughly over by the time he sold the place. Dad went through a string of marriages, each lasting pretty close to seven years, each involving its own challenges and “growth experiences” for him. The farm was pretty strongly tied to his second marriage, and by the time his third marriage came along for many reasons it was no longer a viable option to hang onto the place. We all sort of recognized and accepted that, but as I said, somewhere in our hearts we never let go of those experiences.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, it was through the career and investment decisions that Dad made during the course of his third marriage that he was able to give each of his children enough of an investment portfolio so that I have now been able to use part of that money to finance this sort of modest rural escape dream of my own. Thus in virtually every way this cottage project brings aspects of my relationship with my father to mind for me. It has almost all of the aspects that made the Heath farm so special for me at least –– things that I strongly speculate were important all to my siblings as well: simplicity for its own sake, understated natural beauty surrounding the place, interactions with neighbors with lots of “character”, and working to turn an essentially unwanted property into something beautiful and desirable. The only major aspect of the original model that is missing for me is being able to share it with my own children. But that has to do mostly with timing issues, for which I don’t really blame anyone, least of all my father.

The comparison and cause-and-effect relationship between my own experience of divorced-fatherhood and my father’s is a more complicated question. What I can say for sure is that he and I both made significant mistakes in our marital decisions, both in terms of who each of us married, when and why; and how each of us failed in our attempts to build and maintain those relationships thereafter. (My father’s current marriage appears to be going strong for him, hopefully on course to see him through the rest of his life now, so perhaps he’s learned more from his mistakes than I’ve learned from mine, but that is sort of beside the point here.) I can further state that my mistakes in these areas have been entirely different sorts than his mistakes, and I don’t see my mistakes as evidence that he screwed up in terms of being a bad role model for me. There are still many things about some of his mistakes that I do not understand, mostly because they have to do with things that were not talked about in front of children when I was a child, and which were not really any of my business anymore once I became an adult; but I don’t believe that such an understanding would have prevented me from making my own mistakes in marriage in particular.

The relevant issue is that the relative roles men and women in society and in marriage are still changing. Women have (largely justifiably) demanded greater respect for their contributions and capabilities, and that has effectively destroyed the traditional status quo of what men and women have felt culturally entitled to demand of each other. There are many cultures which are still resisting such changes, but such resistance seems largely doomed to failure. As much as they might try to deny it, the most culturally conservative branches of Christianity, medieval Islamic traditions, African tribal traditions, Chinese Confucian traditions and other such systems which seek to keep women “in their proper place” are continuously having to make new compromises as women’s rights become more widely recognized and accepted. Nor can we take any of their fights against such compromises to be “a bold moral stand” of any sort. Thus we are in a position where we still don’t know what new cultural norms will arise for regulating romantic relationships and marital mutual responsibility. So there is really no mystery to the matter of marriages continually breaking up more as traditional gender roles get shuffled around.

My father had his own reasons, which I only partially understand to this day, for choosing to set aside “traditional marital responsibility,” before that was particularly popular or respectable thing to do. I, on the other hand, tried to find personal security through dogmatic belief in traditional gender roles and moral codes, only to find that I could not depend on such standards to safeguard my future happiness or domestic tranquility. My father didn’t provide a “positive role model” in that regard, but I can’t imagine that it really would have mattered for me if he had; things had changed too much. Beyond that the hypotheticals run way too deep for me to even begin to sort them out.

What my father did offer to me was a role model of how to remain dignified and keep a sense of personal honor even when things don’t work the way you want them to, and even when your honor comes under the bitterest attacks. The farm in Heath was part of that. It was an exercise in looking for sustainable values in an ever changing world. That isn’t to say that Dad found them there, but he made my siblings and I part of his process of looking for them, in such a way that each of us in turn has continued looking for such values in ways we each started to develop for ourselves at the farm.

Part of that for me has been seeking out a balance between religious and non-religious aspects of my life; or perhaps I should say, a balance between trying to spiritually connect with other people and trying to spiritually connect with simple, less societally oriented aspects of the world around me. It’s sort of an Ecclesiastes 7 thing (particularly relating to verses 15-18), which could be taken as both an earlier and more profound variation on Aristotle’s idea of the “Golden Mean”.

And that in turn is a big part of what I am doing here at my little place in the Finnish countryside. That is also why I cannot help but think of my father extensively every time I come here. That is what makes it particularly appropriate for me to be spending America’s Father’s Day here on my own.

I’m not sure how far others can relate to what I’m saying here. I’m even less sure about how many might agree with my socio-ethical perspectives on these matters. These are just my own rambling thoughts about what my father –– the man I am named after –– means to me on this holiday. So here’s wishing you, David Robert Huisjen, Senior, the finest of days celebrating your paternal status; and here’s wishing fathers everywhere the sort of deep satisfaction that should go with knowing your importance in your children’s lives.

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Filed under Ethics, Happiness, Holidays, Individualism, Parenting, Philosophy, Respectability

Robots, Drones or Holographs?

This past week I’ve had the privilege to attend the twenty-first annual “Toward a Science of Consciousness” conference here in Helsinki. It was a brilliant opportunity to meet with leading intellects from around the world in fields of physics, psychology, neurology, philosophy, social sciences, etc. Part of the organizers’ strategy was to keep building on the popularity of David Chalmers’ “Hard Problem” approach, while making room for Deepak Chopra’s brand of mysticism, Susan Blackmore’s post-parapsychological perspectives, various quantum physics possibilities, the latest in neuro-science research, and plenty of philosophical speculations in between. I guess the coolest part has been just having the chance to hang around chatting with all sorts of respected thinkers who are really into this sort of thing.DSCF0039

Last year’s conference in Arizona, as I understand it, featured an interesting intellectual show-down between Chalmers and Daniel Dennett. I would have loved to sit in on that one, but I was pretty sure from the start that it was beyond what I could indulge myself with. Hearing that they would have the conference in Helsinki this year though, I made a point of getting myself signed up as a volunteer worker for the project as soon as possible. I’m very glad I did.

Dennett was not involved this time around, and taking his place this year in terms of providing scientific skepticism regarding the concept of an explanatory gap in conventional scientific research regarding the phenomenon of consciousness were noted neuro-scientist Patricia Churchland and philosophy professor David Papineau. Like Dennett, their perspectives were effectively that, on the basis of something like Occam’s razor, there is really no reason to assume that a non-physically based phenomenon of consciousness exists. Physics, and the sciences derived therefrom, have yet to convincingly explain why we have sensations at all –– why life should feel like anything; why our self-preservation mechanisms involve emotional aspects, empathetic responses and the broad phenomenal world of self-conscious reflection –– but it is still theoretically possible to dismiss those sensations as irrelevant abstractions or as abstract illusions produced by our “selfish genes”.

DSCF0013The primary defender of the perspective that phenomena of conscious experience need to be considered as part of the basic data that scientists and other academics need to find explanations for was Philip Goff, who argues for a metaphysical theory known as panpsychism. Chalmers has previously voiced some sympathy for Goff’s perspective on things, but this time he showed no particularly strong commitment in that direction. In fact in his keynote address to the conference this year Chalmers offered up another perspective on things which, he readily admitted, would effectively necessitate a rejection of panpsychism: consciousness as the “m-factor” in quantum physics.

Without going into too many technical details (especially since Chalmers himself did not go into too many technical details), the idea relates to the fate of Schrodinger’s poor little cat. According to the most basic understanding of quantum theory, in the random situation where this cat might or might not be killed as the result of random sub-atomic forces, until a measurement is taken that “freezes” the situation, we have to think of the cat as being both alive and dead. Something about taking measurements –– properly investigating the situation –– however, creates a more definitive state of affairs. Once we have somehow looked into the cat’s box we can either say that the cat is alive or the cat is dead; it can no longer be both. In this sense the investigative process–– the measurement, m-function, or whatever you want to call it –– “collapses the quantum wave function,” giving us a precise set of points of reference rather than a field of non-specifically localized energy vibrations.


David Chalmers offering his basic perspective on quatum physics

That much is pretty much generally accepted among physicists who are into this sort of thing. The unknown is what it is about the measuring process which causes this wave collapse. Is there something about the energy of consciousness itself which causes physical entities to take on perceived solid form? Is conscious energy then its own force within the quantum universe that brings about specific points of reference in the physical world? Or is the cause and effect the other way around: Is consciousness a form of energy which is released at the point when a quantum wave collapses and particular particle locations come about? What would the ramifications for this sort of theory of quantum dynamic be?

20150613_134849[1]Meanwhile, on the level of macro-physics, there are all sorts of things related to neurological function worth exploring, which various conference participants were playing with in various ways. One of the most interesting was the use of ultrasound projection into the brain as a means of mood regulation. Apparently the new thing among those who are fascinated with various means of self-medicating to alter their states of consciousness is to project various forms of energy into their brains, ranging from electric current to magnetic fields to various frequencies of radiant energy above and below the x-ray range. All of these forms of energy are commonly used as means of diagnostic imaging; they are projected into the brain and other parts of the body as means of looking at the hidden structures and activities going on in there without cutting the patient open for the doctor to see directly. As side effects these energies can alter the operation of the tissue they pass through, increasing or decreasing metabolism there. The very newest thing here is ultrasound. As it happens, when it comes to ultrasound, there are devices which have already been approved for experimental use among those who are trying to improve their mental function in military situations, or in gaming simulations of military situations. Within the range of what that same experimental permit allows, the University of Arizona is now experimenting with the use of ultrasound machines to alter people’s moods and eventually try to treat monopolar depressive illnesses. In practice this involved voluntary participants putting a little speaker up against their right temple, having pulses of sound that only dogs can hear blasted into their brain for less than a minute, and seeing how that effected their mental processes. I didn’t try it myself, but for the different volunteers there were different drugs that the experience brought to mind. Private experimentation, dangerous as it may be, seems rather likely to follow on this matter.

So speculation remains open, not only about what the underlying principles are for our conscious experiences, but as to whether the various forms of research being done in the field at this point in history are really even asking the right questions. One thing that seems rather obvious is that the brain plays a key role in the whole process, but there are different models regarding the ultimate metaphysical principles involved in brain function. I would summarize the alternatives that were being bounced around last week as falling into three categories; those given in the title of this essay.

DSCF0019The first would postulate that people are essentially physical machines, or in a sense robots, with the human brain as a particularly powerful self-programming computer which operates the body according to certain basic principles that are “hard-wired” in, and others which it picks up as it goes. The old analogy of a clockwork mechanism explaining things is rather outdated, but the sort of robots that sci-fi authors like Philip K. Dick wrote about could still be used as an explanation for the idea. According to this way of thinking, conscious experience is just a side effect of the ways in which our genetic programing realizes itself through our bodily functions. “Free will” is just an illusory sensation that goes along with these bodily functions as they develop through the ways in which our genetic programming adapts to and is realized within our material environment(s). Even so, from this perspective it is speculated that as Google’s self-driving cars and other such technologies are further developed, as a by-product of their increasing complexity they will start to have their own subjective experiences of something like emotional satisfaction or frustration with the ways in which they are able to carry out their given tasks. From there they may eventually begin doing something akin to our own processes of moral decision making. This is the sort of belief which characterizes the physicalist approach to consciousness. As unlikely as it may seem in many respects, this is the clear majority perspective in the field at this point.

A rather different approach, but holding many common features with physicalism, would be to recognize all of the self-regulating physical functions of these bodies –– with all of the genetic, bio-chemical, semi-automated environmental adaptation mechanisms, etc. which they include –– but based on what it feels like to operate within one of these units, to believe that there’s more to it than that. In other words there could still be a non-material dynamic or force of some sort which is effectively operating the controls for our bodies. Think of this in terms of drones –– the unmanned aircraft that are continuously being flown over the Middle East by the one branch or another of the U.S. government these days. Semi-secretly, somewhere in North Dakota (probably), tomorrow morning a man will have breakfast with his family, maybe drop off his kids at school, and then go to “the office”… to sit there for the day piloting a little unmanned aircraft called an MQ-9 over on the other side of the world, searching for “enemies of freedom” on which to unleash its hellfire missiles and other implements of destruction.

dronestrikes630x420As with a self-driving car, everything about the operating capacity, guidance systems and automatic responses to environmental conditions in an MQ-9 predator drone can be explained purely in terms of its internal equipment and the programming of its on-board computer systems. Yet unlike the purely robotic vehicle, the drone actually does not “decide for itself” where it will go, what it will deliver and who it will kill on any given day. There is some conscious agent controlling this mechanism, external to the mechanism, who ultimately decides what it does, and who is ultimately morally responsible for its actions.

To the outside observer it might be impossible to determine which vehicle being actively remotely controlled and which is robotically self-directed. If an enemy (or commercial competitor) would capture either sort of unit, it would be a rather challenging and uncertain process to determine whether it is self-controlled or remote controlled based solely on evidence gained from the machine itself (especially if they were not able to monitor the various sorts of radio signals that the machine in question would give off and receive as it operates). They might easily mistake a drone for a robot, or a robot for a drone. If you fire a bazooka at either, destroying significant parts of its on-board electronics or mechanical controls, the resulting reduction in its operational capacities will be pretty much the same for both. So in terms of this analogy, how can we say whether or bodies are entirely self-controlled units, or whether we have conscious “souls” which somehow operate our bodies?

In any case, those who assume, on the basis of the conscious experiences we have of our bodies and what lies beyond them, that each of us is essentially a conscious entity of some sort, with an essence distinct from the our bodies and brains, and that this conscious essence is that which (under normal circumstances) ultimately controls the body and experiences the sensations generated by the body’s sensing apparatus, are classified as functional dualists. This position entails the possibility that there could also be some bodies around us that operate without any sense of conscious experience, famously referred to by Chalmers as zombies. Dualism as such is generally seen as a respected minority position among consciousness researchers. It is still subject to critique from some strict atheists for being a little too close to a religious world view for their taste. Even so, this is how I would currently classify myself, with a fair amount of acknowledgement given to the possibility of error of course.

There is a third alternative view as to how our conscious selves and our bodies relate to each other though: the body and its brain can be seen as a projection generated by either individual or collective consciousness, analogous in many ways to a holographic image. From this perspective, while the body and its environment can be experienced on all sorts of different levels, none of these experiences prove beyond doubt that the reality of what is being experienced is essentially material. This way of conceptualizing things is best known in the history of western philosophy as Berkeley’s radical idealism. It also has strong connections with the “Christian Science” religious orientation, and it is quite strongly associated with the sort of Hindu mysticism currently being popularized by Deepak Chopra and his fans who were present at this week’s conference. According to this view the primary focus in the study of consciousness should be on self-awareness and meditative focus as means of projecting a healthier identity into the bodies and brains which our consciousness is continuously creating through its capacity to project such things. I’m not really sure what to say about this, other than that it remains an interesting though counter-intuitive possibility for explaining life as we know it.

Ultimately, however, from my perspective, the important issue is still the Kirkegaardian one: rather than determining with absolute certainty how our conscious selves and our physical selves relate to each other, what we really need to determine is what is worth doing with ourselves, whatever we happen to be. Needless to say, our starting assumptions regarding what ultimately makes each of us who we are have a significant impact on what sort of meaning we try to find for our lives; but if these speculations don’t have any impact on how we live our lives, from my own perspective at least they have extremely limited value.

20150610_173457[1]On the other hand, however, I must admit that my view in this regard as well is probably a minority position; and given the number of people who have demonstrated a fascination with the subject by gathering in Helsinki to talk about it last week, there seem to be plenty of people who find other reasons for exploring the subject of consciousness and seeing it as valuable. And regardless of the differences in viewpoint I have with some of the positions presented last week, it was a truly fascinating experience unto itself. I certainly hope this isn’t the last time I will be able to take part in such a conference.

Cheers to all of my new friends from the occasion.


Filed under Education, Metaphysics, Philosophy