Category Archives: Death

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

Charlie and the Martyr Factory

Like most people in the western world, prior to this past week I had never heard of the publication Charlie Hebdo. Had someone shown it to me last month I probably would have thought of it as nothing more than a further example of poor taste in European humor; one low water mark among many. This week, however, the name became synonymous with martyrdom for freedom of speech; of the pen being more fearsome than the sub-machine gun. Given my occupational disease as a philosophy teacher of over-analyzing everything, I can’t help but think there must be a lesson in there somewhere. Let’s see if I can tease one out.

The word martyr is more than a little overused these days, especially in relation to (both sides of) conflicts involving Muslims. Some emotionally disturbed individuals who have been brainwashed into believing that they are worth more dead than alive have made a cliché out of strapping all kinds of explosives to their bodies and attempting to end the lives of as many “infidels” or “bad guys” as possible together with their own. Others have made a point of made a point of attacking those loosely defined as “the enemy” in seemingly senseless, reactionary ways, which actually serve an important strategic purpose of drawing irate counter-attacks from the enemy, which in turn kill a fair number of innocent women, children and everyday workers going about their business. These “collateral damage” victims then can be elevated to the status of “martyrs” as well, as a means of recruiting new fighters to the reactionary cause. Others set out to establish as strong a media presence for themselves with their hatemongering towards the other side as possible, so that if they have the fortune (good or bad being a question of perspective) to get killed for their stated views, their voices will be all the more amplified.

In this sort of cynical economy of martyrdom, it is frankly rather amazing that some Muslim activists still don’t get it. The global political arena being what it is, making martyrs of those who critique your position is the worst possible sort of strategic blunder one can make. Killing off those who mock you and try to make you look stupid only reinforces the message that you deserve such mockery and derision. If your primary strategic asset is a store of “martyrs” that you can use as means of recruiting new hot-blooded reactionaries –– who in turn can quickly destroy themselves and become new “martyrs” for the cause, enabling you to recruit still more young militants –– the last thing you want to do is make martyrs out of your opponents. It is thus merely a matter of common sense that, tasteless as some of the cartoons in question may have been, “responsible voices” throughout the Muslim world have joined the western media consensus in crying out against this past week’s killings in Paris. Then the fact that the attackers also took the life of a honorable Muslim French police officer in the process of martyring cartoonists and publishers just adds insult to injury.

Martyrs don’t have to be perfect people. Some of the most iconic martyrs of the last generation have been deeply flawed individuals in many aspects of their personal lives and their strategic judgment. The core issue, however, is that they stood for something that their enemies found deeply threatening, and they refused to back off on the matter even though they knew some people might try to kill them for it. On this basis ideological opponents can no longer belittle the significance of the deaths of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Stephen Biko, Anna Politkovskaya or even the Kennedy brothers by pointing out their human failings; the best they can do is try to co-opt and pervert the essence of what these heroic people stood for and were willing to die for.

Suicide cases are more ambiguous. It was harder to make a case for considering Bobby Sands and the other IRA gunmen who starved themselves to death in British prisons in the 1980s worthy of the title of “martyr”. Those who have burned themselves to death in public as a means of making their various political points have perhaps been more effective in terms of their deaths bringing others into the fight. Suicide bombers… well, their primary effectiveness is in terms of making their enemies afraid of their insanity rather than inspiring respect for their dignity and courage among their comrades. It takes a pretty desperate or confused mind to call that martyrdom. Sadly there seem to be quite a few such desperate and confused minds out there.

But if there’s a point to all this it’s that people can more readily relate to the victims than to the aggressors, and if you want to win the battle for hearts and minds, you can’t do that by trying to violently stomp out the opposition. The best you can hope to accomplish with any form of violent action is to prevent violent aggressors on the other side from attacking innocent parties, particularly those who actually have nothing to do with the feud you’re involved in.

The process of struggling for control, especially of hearts and minds, involves a certain inherent moral hierarchy: It begins with important ideas, moving on from there to media dissemination, civil activism, (democratically determined) government policy, and from there possibly to violent action. Each layer in this structure can lead to the activation of the next one up. The ultimate strength and legitimacy of actions on any layer here depends entirely on the level of support they have from the layers immediately below them (with what should properly underlie important ideas being a separate essay topic unto itself). Whenever an action from a higher level is used to combat an opponent’s action from a lower level in this hierarch, the higher level action effectively morally discredits itself in the process. This is how martyrs are made. This is what wise operators will try to avoid. Let me try to unpack this step by step.

political influence levelsIf you come across an idea that you don’t like –– that is influencing people to do things you see as harmful or destructive –– the first thing to do is to confront that idea on the level of ideas, with a better opposing idea: you need to prove the opposing idea wrong. If you try to counter the idea with a weaker idea, and if you try to make up the difference by just shouting louder than the other guy, you may get more people to hear you in the short-term, but in the long term you discredit yourself and your cause by doing so.

Of course any idea needs to be heard to have an impact on society, for better or for worse. If the other side is trying to drown you out with their volume, sometimes it becomes necessary to find ways of raising your own volume or visibility to counter that. Fighting media tactics with media tactics is thus a morally acceptable practice, as long as you don’t surrender the integrity of your ideas in the process (which, sadly, most politicians seem to do). What you don’t want to do beyond that though is to use mob tactics against their media. The term for fighting against an idea by mobilizing an emotional mob against it is demagoguery. This is what Kierkegaard accused his opponents of doing. This is part of why today we remember Kierkegaard’s name, but not the names of his opponents.

That does not mean that mass participation in the implementation of ideas is to be forbidden. The contest between groups of supporters of different ideas as groups is not demagoguery, it’s democracy.  Democratic coalitions should most certainly be allowed to challenge each other’s positions, and in the process they should be fully entitled to organize, campaign, protest and vote on behalf of the ideas they collectively believe in. For one group to use their position of political advantage and (temporary) authority to officially prevent opposing viewpoints from being fairly represented is a practice commonly referred to as tyranny. It was (theoretically) in opposition to just these sorts of abuses that the United States of America determined to rid themselves of English imperial rule some 240 years ago.

From here we come to the case of tensions arising between different self-determinant and self-governing peoples. When the legitimate autonomy of both sides is mutually recognized, and negotiations –– sometimes particularly intense negotiations –– are carried out on this basis, we are not talking about tyranny, but rather diplomacy. Sadly however, diplomacy has historically remained a rather abstract concept in international politics when it is not backed up with a certain amount of military preparedness and capacity for violent reaction on each side. When this military capacity becomes too one-sided, and when the dominant side in question uses its dominance to disregard the other side’s interests, this is properly known imperialism, a phenomenon closely related to the disease of colonialism. The historical abuses carried out in this regard by competing European nations with all of their colonies in Africa, Asia and the Americas are quite universally acknowledged by most educated people these days as having been in many respects morally inexcusable; but that does not necessarily imply that would-be imperial powers in our own time have learned anything from the moral mistakes of their predecessors.

Then we come to the word terrorism. These days this term is broadly used in reference to any group which does not represent a recognized national government, but which still attempts to use violent means of achieving their political interests. Given the way that some warring parties refuse to recognize those they are fighting against as having a moral right to fight back, the term is frequently over-used, and the difference between “terrorists” and “freedom fighters” tends to get very fuzzy at best. When Nelson Mandela can be officially labeled as a terrorist and without the term being used in reference to Augusto Pinochet, its moral significance obviously becomes rather questionable. Regardless of what we call them though, we can say for sure that those who use violent means to try to frighten others into submission stand on morally shaky ground. When a group uses its capacity for violence as a substitute for developing stronger ideas and building communal solidarity around them, moral justification is no longer a bona fide possibility for them.

The process of seeking out valid justifications for violence –– be they religious, ideological, utilitarian or in any other sort –– is more than I want to explore here today. Suffice to say, the number of violent actions which we see around us in the world today that might have some sort of valid moral justification is tiny at best, and as many intelligent Muslims have already joined western commentators in pointing out, the attack against Charlie Hebdo certainly doesn’t qualify as justifiable.

Hopefully intelligent leaders on all sides will take this stupid tragedy as a signal that it’s time to start de-escalating these cycles of violence –– regardless of how emotionally satisfying the feel to certain sorts of conservatives, and regardless of how profitable they are to certain American businesses. I’m not holding my breath waiting for current conflict leaders to take such de-escalating action, but I can still hope.

Meanwhile I can’t imagine that I would be important enough where any radical extremist would consider killing me to be worth their trouble, but regardless of my trivial status I hereby stand in solidarity with all of the “martyrs” whose ideas have been considered so threatening that the various powers that be have decided to be violently silence them. Though I write my own ideas pretty much entirely by keyboard (and I generally use pens only for marking up my students’ texts and my research source materials), I hold this pen aloft to say, long live the power of ideas, and shame on all those who attempt to silence them by demagogic, tyrannical or violent means!

20150111_213743All honor to those who, regardless of their other short-comings, have dared to stand up for their own ideas, however crazy or tasteless those ideas may be. All honor to those who dare to think in exciting new ways, and to those who dare to challenge their ideas on an intellectual level, in a spirit of mutual respect. All honor to those who abide by the principle that the way to challenge faulty ideas is simply with better ideas; those who believe that if violence has any legitimate use at all it is to be found in the restrained exercise of such to prevent greater and more random violence from befalling the innocent.

Long live the principles that Charlie has come to stand for. Now can we please take some steps towards shutting down this martyr factory?!

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Filed under Death, Ethics, Freedom, Human Rights, News, Politics, Pop culture

Kingdom Come, revisited

Finland’s Independence Day, 2014.

I’ve celebrated thus far by letting myself sleep in this morning, then bicycling through the rain and sleet to the cemetery where the cremated remains of my dear ex-father-in-law are interred. As he was one of the war veterans who did more than his fair share to keep this country independent, and has he remained a friend to me regardless of the mess of my divorce from his daughter, it is important to me on a year to year basis to remember him with a candle on this day.


On the cycle trip each way I noticed that the majority of businesses open here today are actually immigrant owned restaurants. That doesn’t bother me. In many ways it makes sense. I actually went and had a kebab at one Turkish-owned place on my return trip just to support my fellow outsiders within Finnish society with that trivial gesture. But I hope that ultra-nationalist Finns will not start using that as a further justification for their racism against outsiders from Muslim countries in particular.

After the kebab I decided to stop over to my work place, assuming it would be empty today, to use the computer to do a bit of reading and writing. When I arrived, however, I discovered that two of my colleagues –– also foreign men who first came to Finland for matrimonial reasons –– were having the same idea. There are plenty of machines though, and it’s good not to be alone.

But en route I got to thinking about my conflicted perspectives on militancy. I have absolutely no moral reservations about my older son’s work as a drill sergeant in Finland’s army, and I appreciate how those of his maternal grandfather’s generation put up a brave fight to convince the Soviets that Finland would not be worth re-colonizing. On the other hand though, over Thanksgiving I gave Arlo’s Alice’s Restaurant another listen, and between that and my friend Brian’s recent posts, and some academic research I’ve been doing into the meta-ethical structures of Bertrand Russell’s pacifism over the past week, I’m more than a little convinced that there is no moral justification for the vast majority of the killing that the US military in particular has been doing over the past couple of decades.

So how can war be justified? Or can it?

My growing conviction on the matter is that the only valid justification for war is to defend the basic human rights of the basic population of the land in question, and then only if it can be done without prejudice in favor of those who are “our friends” or who are able to promise good business in the future to those who are selling the tools of destruction being used. A very high threshold indeed is needed in these matters, and ideally those who stand to gain heavily from the fighting itself should not be given a say in the matter.

The way in which both fossil fuel and military industrialists continue to get everything they want politically, both in terms of economic and foreign policy decisions, is morally reprehensible. Neither party in the US political system seems prepared to do anything to limit this abuse (though the Republicans seem just a little more gung-ho in supporting it). This in turn leads to other abusive psychopaths like Vladimir Putin, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Kim Jong-un sounding almost justified in claiming that their militant actions are necessary to challenge presumptuously high-minded and over-extended force of the American military machine.

I am thoroughly convinced that if the United States sincerely wants to play a positive role in promoting human rights abroad (which, according to the diplomats I met last month at the US Embassy in Helsinki, is the ongoing political priority of American foreign policy, regardless of which party is in power), the only way for them to effectively do so is through promoting education in social sciences. This is rather difficult for the US to do, however, because it lags significantly behind the rest of the developed world in this particular area. Were this not the case, I stress yet again, conservative organizations so dogmatically proud of their own ignorance would not have the sort of foothold that they do in American political culture. This in turn makes it all the easier for companies that make gasoline and implements of death and destruction to de facto run the country. I could not be more ashamed of my native land in this regard at this point.


But climbing off of this political hobby horse of mine for the moment, this subject brought to mind a song I wrote over 20 years ago with my dear friend Juuso Happonen, called Kingdom Come. It was inspired at the time, in the early 90s, by an original melody Juuso had given me a recording of on an old C-cassette tape, and how that in turn reminded me of my experiences visiting Northern Ireland during the time of the “troubles” in the early 80s. I wrote lyrics for two verses and a chorus on some old scrap paper at the time, and the tune soon found its way into Juuso’s troubadour set list. Since then, however, it has gathered a fair amount of dust.

For some reason, however, this song came to mind as I was on my bicycle this afternoon, headed to leave a candle at the grave of a soldier I had come to love and respect years after his war. And as I pedaled a potential third verse for the song came to mind.

So here’s for Juuso, and Brian, and all my other friends out there who believe in working for peace on earth in their own little ways:

Kingdom Come (revised edition)

When all our troubles are over,
will there be any point in what we have done?
Will our castles still be lived in?
Will our flags be flown by the sons of our sons?
When we’ve buried all of the soldiers,
can we truly say that the battle is won?
Can we glory in the destruction?
Can we till the land where the fighting was done?

And then still we wonder,
then still we wonder,
why the kingdom won’t come.

There’s a family down on the corner;
they should know better than to live around here.
They don’t speak the respectable language.
They don’t seem to care about what we hold dear.
So the town boys taught them a lesson,
and they made it clear that they were not welcome.
Now I’m left with only one question:
Was it them who turned this into a slum?

And then still we wonder,
then still we wonder,
why the kingdom won’t come.

We’ve all got our own little treasures;
some we’ve earned, some acquired at the point of a gun.
And we hope for even more pleasures,
though with vague ideas about how that is done.
For the thing we’ve become the best at
is to hold our own ground when push comes to shove;
with the consequential effect that
we’ve got no idea about brotherly love.

And then still we wonder,
then still we wonder,
why the kingdom won’t come.

Oh why won’t the kingdom come?


Filed under Death, Education, Ethics, Holidays, Politics

What the Hell?

One last blog entry here before I embark on my Kenyan adventure.

It relates to another subject that I generally try to avoid: the meaning of hell. This is (excuse the pun) somewhat of a hot topic lately though, in that it is the primary inconsistency in the Christian concept of a loving God for some, and the primary test of Christian Orthodoxy for others.

In particular this last week one Louis Gohmert, a politician representing the conservative theological hot spot of Texas (again, excuse the pun), decided to make more of a name for himself by going after a less conservative clergyman –– Barry Lynn, who stands for the issue of maintaining freedom of religion (in the more traditional sense of the phrase) in the United States. Gohmert did so by tossing out the implication that, in order to count as a proper representative of Christianity, Lynn needs to explicitly state that all those who don’t follow the proper evangelical formula for receiving Jesus are destined for an eternity of torture in hell.

130625_louie_gohmert_ap_328To say that Gohmert missed the point of the hearing in question may miss the point. Lynn had gone to Washington to address the issue of government slipping in the direction of indirectly requiring religious observance of various sorts from its citizens. Gohmert wanted to make his own point that, in the name of freedom of religion as he sees it, people should be free to believe that those who don’t meet their requirements are going to hell, and they should be free to use the political process as a means of promoting their beliefs and pressuring those “hell-bound” others to get right with God. Whether or not that can be done in a fashion that respects the beliefs of those who believe differently from him and his evangelical base supporters is a secondary matter; the important thing for Gohmert was to send a sound bite back to his base which tells them that he is fighting the good fight and standing for the principles of the “true faith” up there in that heathen city of Washington –– the litmus test for being part of that true faith being belief in a literal hell of some sort for those who don’t “come to the Father” by way of Jesus according to the proper formula.

There are plenty of Christians who deny the existence of hell, and who have paid the price for their disbelief in this regard. The story of Carlton Pearson in particular comes to mind on that one. For me Pearson is neither a hero nor a villain, but an interesting anthropological case study in how important this issue is to how many people. Gohmert chose his emotive hook wisely it would seem, at least in demagogic political terms for impact in Texas.

In looking up the link for Pearson’s story I also stumbled across Addie Zierman’s recent comments on the subject. Mrs. Zierman is apparently working on promoting her recent memoir about dabbling around the edges of adultery as a formerly good evangelical girl, and the effects that had on her faith. She has thus been giving various radio interviews on the subject, in which she’s also tried to shore up what remains of her evangelical credentials. On one such occasion last winter though she got significantly stuck on the question of whether she believes in hell –– in the doctrine of unbelievers automatically being destined for eternal torment in the after-life. She didn’t really know, and she is mildly self-critical about the lack of erudition this caused her.

She had thoroughly believed in this concept when she was an elementary school child. Back then she was proud to tell her classmates that they were going to hell and she wasn’t, even if her teacher didn’t necessarily understand how this was supposed to be an optimistic message… but the complexities of adult life had made her a bit less sure about the matter. She lets herself off by saying, “What the hell do I know about hell? I’m not a pastor or a scholar. I’m a writer. An English Major. I sat in the back row of my Christian Theology class senior year of college and slept through much of it.”

Unfortunately I can’t let myself off that easily. I too have certainly slept through more than my fair share of lectures on dogmatics, but even so… I’ve been considered an expert of sorts on all things religious since long before I knew what I was talking about, and for the last quarter of my life or so I’ve made a living explaining such matters to teenagers in the Finnish public school system. So how do I explain what I believe about hell? I guess I’d have to say that I’m in the process of re-evaluating my beliefs on the subject as well.

Like Jesus’ ascension, the concept of hell definitely contains certain aspects that fit a lot easier with a medieval world view than with a modern one. The idea that hell (and/or purgatory) would be physically somewhere down below our feet, heated by the sort of molten magma that bursts out of volcanoes every now and again, makes slightly more scientific sense than the idea that, somewhere above a relatively flat earth, on the other side of the clouds, there is a physical realm of heaven where God and his angels and saints live and party every night –– but just barely. It doesn’t really address the question of whether there is some physical essence to the soul being tortured there. If there is, what sort of sentient physical form would that be? If not –– if the soul lives on after death as a non-material conscious entity –– what difference would the physical conditions surrounding it actually make?

Then there’s the whole question of what basis we have for believing that a disembodied yet conscious soul can be a real thing. Assuming that such things do exist (and will exist for each of us), what is the basic essence of the soul in such a state? If we take the creation narrative in Genesis 1 somewhat literally in this regard, the thing that makes each human a living soul is the “breath of God,” breathed into Adam by God and spread to all of his offspring from there. Aristotle’s take on the subject, which I was analyzing here last month, is that the only part of the soul which would survive death is the nous or “mind” –– the divine spark within each intelligent person that enables them to perceive non-material realities in general. Either way, if the part of the soul which survives separation from the material body is actually divine in its essence and origin, how can that divine part of the person –– the trace of God within the person –– be the object of God’s wrath?

Then there’s still the question of where the whole concept of hell came from to begin with. There are actually two concepts that get mixed together here: Sheol, the ancient Hebrew concept of the abode of the dead; and the image of the Hinnom Valley, south of Jerusalem.
Hades-childhood-animated-movie-villains-25060468-1024-768Sheol is translated from Hebrew to Greek as “Hades”, but it’s hard to say exactly how much the concept of death in the time of David’s kingdom had to do with the fiery lord of the underworld in Greek mythology. The main image we get in relation to this place is one of detachment, non-feeling, non-knowing and emptiness. The hope given is that after their time in the cold, dead grave, significant persons will be brought back to life to receive God’s favor or face further manifestations of his wrath (Psalm 49:14-15, Daniel 12:2), but these hopes remain rather vaguely expressed in the Hebrew scriptures.

The Hinnom Valley, also known as Gehenna, was a spot outside the walls of Jerusalem on the south side, where, in the lowest ebbs of Israelite and Jewish culture, human sacrifice would take place –– particularly the killing and burning of young children to offer them to various local gods who were seen as able to supplement JHWH’s power in helping them out in battle and the like. The prophets had all sorts of good reasons for condemning this practice, though sometimes it’s hard to tell which they were more worried about: God’s jealousy or the disrespect for the rights of children. In any case, this same valley was, at least by legend, the place where the bodies of losers in battle were disposed of, frequently by burning for health protection purposes.
GehennaThis is the place that Jesus warns his followers to be careful so as not to, figuratively speaking, end up getting tossed into –– to the extent of chopping off limbs or gouging out eyes if that is the only way to avoid it! He describes his worst ideological enemies, the Pharisees, as the children of this valley and destined to burn there (Matthew 23: 15, 33). But that’s about it for Bible teaching on that one.

Beyond specific references to Gehenna, without specifically naming the place, twice Jesus spoke of torture by fire for the dead in the after-life. In both cases it was a matter of rich bastards who refused to have mercy on the poor: The tale of the rich man and the beggar named Lazarus in the end of Luke 16, and the prophecy of the judgment of the “sheep and the goats” in the end of Matthew 25. In the portion in Luke, the grave, “hades,” is referred to as a place of burning torment where the rich man “gets what’s coming to him” for being such a jerk in his treatment of the beggar. In the story in Matthew the nations which ignore the plight of the poor, the sick, the stranger and the imprisoned are sentenced to “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” That kind of leaves open the question of individual versus collective punishment in such cases, but the main point is clear: fires of judgment in the after-life are especially intended for those who callously disregard the basic human needs of others. Somehow then this got twisted around to mean that an unending sensation of burning would be the fate of those who didn’t swear allegiance to the proper religious team according to the correct ritual formula. We’ll come back to that.

There are actually two other forms of torture besides burning referred to in the Bible in terms of the after-life experiences of the damned: the worm and the bottomless pit. The worm is referred to in the very last verse in the book of Isaiah (66:24), where it is part of the punishment for those who will rebel against the new messianic order that God is supposed to bring. From there they make an appearance in Jesus’ warnings in Mark 9 about the tortures of hell for those who commit any form of child abuse. The bottomless pit, or the Abyss, is where many of the bad guys come from in the epic battle between good and evil in the book of Revelation. Ultimately good wins and the forces of evil are locked back into this torture chamber for an extended utopian period; after which they are once again released, stomped on decisively in a final battle, and permanently thrown into a lake of fire (chapter 20).

My previous understanding and personal interpretation of these combined references was that the fire, the worm and the abyss –– as combined metaphors for the tortured state of the disembodied soul –– pointed to one thing: progressive destruction which is never finalized. It would be sort of like any radioactive isotope, e.g. carbon 14: As long as a living organism is interacting with other carbon based life forms in the biological world this isotope remains at relatively stable levels in all of its structure. Once the organism dies, however, and no new C14 is being circulated through its system as part of the metabolic process, the C14 starts to break down, so after 5730 years there is roughly half as much C14 in the organism than there would have been while it was alive. But the C14 never disappears from the remains of the organism entirely; after millions of years the breakdown process remains on-going. (In this way paleontologists can make their best scientific guesses as to how long the fossils the find have actually been dead.) So it is for the soul that dies without forming a lasting connection with God –– the source of that “divine spark” within which ultimately makes us human: Like a radioactive isotope, without the refreshment that life offers, such a soul begins to break down, without ever finally getting to the point of being completely broken down. It can feel itself perpetually dying, yet never reaching the restful state of having entirely nothing left to lose. That would be the non-material hell to be avoided –– of which physical pains, and more specifically experiences of alienation and social detachment within this life, are merely something of a foretaste.

There are a number of levels on which I am no longer so sure about that theory. To start with there is the matter of determining which analogies, if any, to trust as the basis for our conceptual understanding here. Literal fire and literal worms eventually burn out or finish consuming all tissues which they find edible. We don’t find thousands of years old glowing embers or obese worms. Nor does any pit on earth extend further than about a quarter of the way through the crust of the planet. By the original analogies the torture at worst would still be of limited duration. In the literal case of the Hinnom Valley fires could and would be kept going non-stop and worm colonies could thrive for years by continuously adding new fuel and bodies, but that does not mean that any given body would be perpetually burning forever. So why should I put more faith in my isotope metaphor than the original ones given in the Bible? Assuming that there really is an experience of disembodied torment for the soul and time of regret after the death of the human body, is it really necessary to believe that this is inevitably something unending?

Secondly, if the ultimate reason why human souls exist to begin with is God’s desire to express love, is there any reason to believe that God would not eventually have mercy on such tortured souls and allow them to rejoin their transcendent source? Could God really be so “heartless” as to ignore the suffering of particular human souls as lightly as factory farm managers ignore the suffering of unwanted male hatchlings which they dispose of as useless by-products of their egg production operations?

Is this really the way God thinks of our "unsaved" friends?

Is this really the way God thinks of our “unsaved” friends?

While agreeing with the rabbi who says that believing in an afterlife is an essential corollary to believing in God –– there is clearly no justice in this world and so it’s impossible to imagine a just God who does not make distinctions between an Adolf Hitler and an Anne Frank “on the other side” –– and while I’m willing to “let God be God” and not make my own declarations of who has to go to which sort of Hell, and who doesn’t, I no longer take that to mean that the evangelical hellfire and brimstone message is a “thus sayeth the Lord” issue.

Interestingly it is only in the end of the book of Revelation where there is any hint of the possibility of “normal people” –– those who actually live conscientious and compassionate lives without association with Jesus –– still potentially ending up in eternal torment: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Evangelicals take that to mean anyone who does not “receive Jesus” in such a way as to have their name on his team’s roster is doomed to hell. Revelation 20:15 is the only verse they have to support that interpretation. The idea that it will be everlasting torment comes from verse 10 of the same chapter, referring to the fate of the devil and his leading generals on the side of evil: “They will be tortured day and night for ever and ever.” Two aspects of this part of John’s apocalyptic vision frequently get overlooked: First, as John saw it, this further torture of the dead requires re-animating their bodies. This “second death” can only happen after the bodies of the damned dead are brought back from the grave and reassembled in such a way as to enable them to face God’s judgment at the final end of human history. There is no talk of disembodied souls being in everlasting torment on the sole basis of not being found in the “book of life” prior to this great final resurrection. (For those who abuse children or ignore the needs of the poor it is a different story.) Secondly, it is repeated in verses 12 and 13 of this chapter that these walking dead will be judged “according to what they had done”, not according to how well they kept the ritual formula of properly receiving Jesus. One of the main themes of Isaiah 66, referred to above, is how little God thinks of those who attempt to do enough religious rituals to compensate for a crude and selfish lifestyle. The New Testament is not intended then to just provide better rituals to justify continuously abusing others.

These are mostly my own somewhat random deliberations on hell, which isn’t really my area of expertise. The most interesting expert on the subject that I can point to these days is Brad Jersak. Brad’s take on the matter is basically that:
1) The vengeance mentality and the fear tactics used as a revivalist motivation to get people to “come to Christ” which significantly motivate belief in this doctrine are in many respects socially and psychologically unhealthy.
2) The doctrine of hell evolved in the western church in particular well after the time of the Nicean Creed, based on a number of leaders’ personal and political concerns about the motivations of the masses.
3) There are essentially three competing views on the matter that can be equally well “proof-texted” from the Bible:
a) infernalism, the eternal torment for unbelievers theory;
b) annihilationism, believing that those outside the scope of God’s love eventually fade away and are no more; and
c) universalism, believing that eventually everyone will inevitably “love big brother” enough to be welcomed into heaven. Finally,
4) God probably doesn’t want us to be too sure about what sort of justice follows this life, leaving the subject broadly open because it is healthiest for us to have some balance of a bit of the fear of God for ourselves and a strong awareness of God’s mercy for everyone else.

I would broadly agree with each of these main points. (If you need them further unpacked I’d recommend surfing around Brad’s web site for a bit, or maybe even buying his book on the subject.) In other words even the best of theological experts are best off agreeing with Mrs. Zierman and other less theologically informed believers in saying, “I really don’t know.” Those who pretend to know for sure are often the most dangerous people to listen to on the subject.

From there we can move on to trying to motivate people less with threats of divine violence and more with not just promises but offers of God’s love starting here and now. Even if some churches find that they are able to boost their statistics by tossing in the occasional (or not so occasional) hell-fire message, on many levels I believe that such an emphasis does infinitely more harm than good.

So that’s about all I know about that. If some find this theoretically helpful, so much the better. If some feel more justified in condemning me to whatever sort of hell they believe in on the basis of what I have to say here, they’re welcome to go for it. Being detached from people like Gohmert and the gods they make in their own image for all eternity is actually a form of punishment I think I can handle. In fact I’m pretty sure I’d prefer it.

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Filed under Death, Empathy, Politics, Religion, Skepticism, Spirituality

Mandela and Other Heroes


One of the issues I promised to discuss here, while I was still in the middle of my recent papal series, was the death of Nelson Mandela. I knew I wouldn’t be among the first to write an insightful essay about the meaning of his life after his passing, but while the issue is still relatively fresh and while some of the debates about his legacy are still swirling, I believe it is appropriate for me to toss in my two cents worth. Not that mine is a particularly important voice in such matters, but having spent a fair amount of time in South Africa during the past few years, and having set the task for myself here of discussing major topics related to the meaning of life in general, Mandela’s life is one I definitely should say something about.

“Madiba,” as his admirers call him, had the sort of death that all people, men in particular, hope for: “full of years,” in bed, surrounded by those who loved him, internationally admired and deeply mourned by those who wish to carry his legacy forward. Those factors to a great extent compensate for his having lost the prime of his life to forced labor mining limestone on an island in South Atlantic, for having lost many friends to a violent conflict with an evil regime, and for having lost a son to a terrible disease which has come almost to typify the country which counts him as its father. All in all then I both would and at the same would not want to have a life like his.

It has been almost inevitable to draw comparisons between Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. At the very least they were both black men of deep principle who came to symbolically represent the struggle in the 1950s and 60s in particular to prevent people from being unjustly essentialized based primarily on their skin color and/or the continent of their ancestry (as of, say, 500 years earlier). Both paid a heavy price for taking on the role of symbolic leader for their people against the injustices they were experiencing: Mandela with his freedom, King with his life. Both knew the risks in advance and were quite ready to pay this price if necessary. Both, very centrally, preached a message not of revenge but of overcoming historic hatreds and divisions between peoples. Both were men of moral failings, particularly as husbands, but that is ultimately irrelevant to their heroic life’s work. (Had it been traditional sexual morality and “family values” that they were fighting for, their failures in those areas would be more directly relevant.) Both of them recognized that the question of racism could not be entirely separated from the problem of “classism”: denying the importance of manual laborers within economic and social processes, and treating such workers as expendable commodities. Both, it could be argued, succeeded in breaking down many of the borders of race at the expense of reinforcing many of the borders of class. Both were deeply hated and demonized by the forces of “conservatism” in particular, yet both have had conservatives attempting to casually symbolically exploit their heroic status since their deaths in ways that should be revolting to anyone for whom integrity in historical interpretation has any significance.

Then just as Martin Luther King was subject to verbal abuse from both Malcom X on the left and Jerry Falwell on the right, Madiba too had been critiqued both by those on the left and on the right. Those on the left cite his failure to live up to the ANC’s “Freedom Charter” in terms of their government acquiring a significant portion of the massive wealth being generated by gold and diamond mining in particular, held quite exclusively by the white population, and to use that wealth to provide safety and basic services for the country’s poor blacks. Those on the right critique him for having attacked the country’s “job creators” both ideologically and militarily in the process of revolutionary struggle, and for not giving them all they were hoping for in the aftermath of the revolution. And for many people’s taste Mandela remained far too friendly with all sorts of abusers of power in the world –– ranging from the Anglo-American mining group and the Oppenheimer banks managing their ill-gotten gains, to homicidal maniac African dictators like Gaddafi and Mugabe. For old school American Republicans, meanwhile, it is enough to know that Fidel Castro was able to number Mandela among his personal friends, and Ronald Reagan counted Mandela among his personal enemies.

But rather than morally discrediting Madiba, this flack from both sides may be an indication of his greatest merit: Any true peacemaker (other than those manufactured by the Colt Corporation) will be hated by those on both sides of the conflict he is mediating who are addicted to their own violent mentalities; and those who are not able to listen to and deal civilly with those who wield power badly are essentially doomed to perpetual ineffectiveness. Making peace between those existentially committed to hating each other will involve this sort of attack from both sides, inevitably –– open question of whether the fruits of peace will be enough to encourage people to allow the peace to last and to overcome the hatreds in question.

The real questions concerning Madiba’s legacy for coming generations is really not whether there was merit in his words and actions, but rather whether those words and actions will be followed by up-and-coming leaders, or whether calloused greed and corruption will doom the country and the continent to a perpetual state of widespread human suffering and on-going low to medium-grade civil wars.

The problem of cleaning up the mess created when a portion of society is treated as a disposable resource is an ancient one, which no portion of the globe has been immune to. When massive changes in the base economy –– in the basic systems by means of which one is able to keep one’s family healthy and fed –– leave some people tossed aside as no longer needed by “respectable folk,” there are strong reasons, both moral and practical, for doing something to help them. Yet the “industry” of providing aid to those in such tragic circumstances has always been rife with corruption and abuse. The poor are not in any solid position to critique the quality of work being done among those who have been sent to help them, and rarely can donors justifiably blame the continued existence of widespread problems on the incompetence of those they are paying to help deal with such problems. Thus, with no reliable means of holding the aid workers responsible for achieving results, and with a seemingly endless supply of problems for them to deal with, there is little to stop those who are so inclined from keeping a significant amount of the resources they are supposed to be using to help the poor for their own private use. This problem remains the same whether we are talking about government organizations, religious institutions, privately run NGOs and “development funds” or UN-based charities: there will always be a “cookie jar” for some to get their hand stuck in. Still in each case the question remains, will those who prioritize compassion and solidarity over greed outnumber the greedy by a large enough margin to make the process of caring for those in need effective regardless of the corruption that inevitably keeps creeping in?

Citing the ways in which such welfare programs get abused at times, both by those within the aid delivery mechanisms and by aid recipients themselves who know how to “play the system” properly, there are many calloused individuals who believe this work should be set aside, and we should focus our efforts on more “productive matters” in the economy. At the very least they would like to see government step entirely out of the role of caring for the poor, leaving such a task to the good will of private sector individuals with their own random religious and/or humanistic motivations for occasional generosity. Preventing South Africa from becoming prey to such a mentality needs to be the top priority in maintaining something of Madiba’s legacy there. Jacob Zuma’s general incompetence at meeting the needs of his country’s poor and at regulating industry for the good of the workers and the environment must not be taken as evidence that government should just give up on such matters. Here Mandela would want his legacy to reflect the principle stated by Pope Francis just before his (Mandela’s) death: “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”

There are two essential means of dealing with such a deadly economy of inequality and exclusion (which sadly we find in some of its most abusive forms these days in South Africa and the United States): government redistribution of resources and disparity limitation laws. The former involves taxing those who have become rich –– not stopping to judge what combination of good fortune, personal hard work and taking advantage of the hard work of others enabled them to get that way –– and using those funds to provide services that allow even the poorest to have basic human dignity in their lives. The latter has historically taken the form of minimum wage laws, but it would be far more effective if it were rather set in terms of maximum wage laws. The question can essentially be posed, within any given economic system, how many times more should the maximum contributor be given relative to what the minimum contributor gets? Ten times more? A hundred times more? A thousand times more? Ten thousand times more? If we can reach a basic understanding within our societies on that matter, then from there it can be made a matter of law that those who are at the highest level in a mining corporation cannot give themselves salaries over that multiple of what they are paying their basic workers –– their miners, cooks, cashiers and cleaners.

walmart protest messageTo avoid stock option loopholes on this making such a law meaningless, there would also need to be certain limits set on how much of the profit a company makes each year be distributed to shareholders as dividends, as opposed to being paid in salaries and bonuses to all those working in the company –– right down to the men and women with shovels and mops in their hands. Nor does the effect of such laws need to be limited to corporations: laws functioning on the same principle can be implemented for entire states, or nations, charging substantial tariffs on goods being brought into their territory which are not produced according to these basic principles.

These systems are not mutually exclusive by any means. We can have both systems of redistribution and disparity limitation working side by side with each other. The point is that leaving income disparity, social exclusion, extreme poverty and injustice (in terms of a lack of protection for basic rights) untreated to the extent that they are now still is not a morally acceptable option, nor an economically viable one in the long term. Madiba’s legacy should give South Africans –– and other global citizens inspired by this legacy –– the courage to face such problems and not allow them to be swept under the rug.

One tactic I have seen used in attempting to neutralize this message though is to accuse those who wish to carry Madiba’s legacy forward of tasteless hero worship. An old distant acquaintance of mine, somewhat typically for those of this mindset, said last week, “People seek a savior, like Gandhi or Mandela to have hope. A hope orchestrated by those in power to pacify the masses. Mandela was on the terrorist list until 2008 and now those who imprisoned him or supported it give speeches of his sainthood. A bone they throw to the masses like a lottery ticket. (…) Do not trust those who make saints which where their enemy.” So in other words, don’t get sucked into this whole admiration of Mandela thing. It’s really nothing but hype designed to manipulate you.

In one sense I agree with him: As stated above in my brief survey of the comparisons between Mandela and Dr. King, both of these great men have had those who had no stomach for their message still attempting to associate themselves with these leaders’ moral status. It stands to reason that not all who claim to respect Madiba’s heroism and to be following his moral example deserve to have their claims taken seriously. (Rick Santorum’s effort to compare his political agenda with Mandela’s has to be the most absurd thus far, but I’m sure it will get worse.)

Even so, I’m not sure if the fellow I’ve just quoted honestly believes that moral leaders like Mandela and Gandhi are nothing but some sort of insignificant manikins which conspiratorial forces on the left have propped up purely for show. If so, he’s been listening to way too much right wing propaganda pretending to be “news”. Nor is it clear to me exactly which conspiratorial forces he believes might be trying to “pacify” the masses by means of such figures of hope, or for that matter what dangerous forms of “pacification” he is afraid this might lead to. The implication seems to be merely that for those in the political center or on the political left to have heroes that symbolize hope for change should not be considered a good thing. In terms of that principle I fundamentally disagree with him. Yet the question of how seriously we take our heroes does deserve some consideration here regardless.

Within hours of Mandela’s death being publicly declared I posted the brief comment, “Humanism can now get to work on the last remaining rituals for the equivalent of canonization.” I wasn’t being cynical about it; I merely saw it as inevitable that immediately after his passing there would be people lining up to declare his greatness to the world, holding him up as an example for all mankind without even getting religious about it. They always do that when someone of great moral status dies. (The political right tried to generate the same sort of heroic remembrance for Margaret Thatcher when she died this year but they failed miserably.) With Madiba, deep reverence for his memory was a fait accompli. Equally inevitable though were the resulting misgivings in some circles over this “equivalent of canonization” being enacted.

Sympathetic heroes leaving this life can have profound motivational effects on their admirers, and whether you consider that to be a good thing or not depends on what you think of the agenda of the hero in question. Religious Right leader Ralph Reed famously criticized the Democratic National Convention by saying, “And unlike the other side, we haven’t gathered in this city this week to anoint a messiah, because you see we already have a messiah.”  What Reed failed to mention in that particular speech is that the messiah that the Religious Right has already found was in fact Mandela’s personal enemy, Ronald Reagan.ronnie

I personally object to Reagan being chosen as a hero for a generation because his primary role in history was to eliminate as many protections for the world’s poor as possible and to expand income gaps in the United States and the rest of the world as far as possible. But I don’t object in principle to those who fundamentally disagree with me on political matters having their own heroes who help them find the motivation to “get up and do what needs to be done.” If there was one thing that Reagan did almost right it was to motivate Americans to work hard through a naïve belief in their own national greatness. He was painfully mistaken about that sort of pride being the theme of Springsteen’s Born in the USA, but he was correct in asserting that he had succeeded in raising such pride.

When people have the hope necessary to work hard in order to build a brighter future, that generally has positive effects on the society in question. It might have had that effect on the United States following the Reagan years as well, were it not for the effective dynamic that Pope Francis has astutely pointed out this month: “The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor.”  The rich benefited from the harder work that Reagan motivated people to do, and consequently the rich found new ways of getting more productivity out of their workers for less pay in the process. Things have been getting progressively worse and less secure for basic laborers in the US economy ever since.

Mandela is also the sort of hero which was capable of giving people hope, motivating them to work harder and believe more in the future. Whether or not this additional motivation will provide a better long-term pay-off for South Africa’s poor and middle class than what America’s equivalent demographic got out of the Reagan revolution remains to be seen. Some believe Zuma has already screwed things up too far for much good immediate good to come of Madiba’s legacy, but hope for growth and restoration still remains. Whatever the case, Mandela succeeded in convincing people that they can work together for the common good, regardless of differences in class, religion and skin color. He succeeded in convincing most people to put their bitterness behind them and to use the newly available democratic means of influencing the society they live in rather than the violence they had to use when that was the only tool at their disposal. He also made significant progress in convincing some of the wealthy whites there of the truth of another point restated quite forcefully by the pope last month: “Until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence. …When a society… is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programs or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root.”

Peace with justice might be a rather naïve hope in many respects, but it is still the greatest hope we have for the realization of spiritual virtues and for the preservation of human societies on this planet. If “canonizing” Mandela helps increase hope for that sort of future I say canonize away!

Concerning the risks involved in hero worship in cases like this, one friend of mine recently posted the quote from the Tao Te Ching: “If you over-esteem great men people become powerless.” And yes, many times in following a profoundly charismatic leader people cease to think for themselves and act on their own initiative. But I qualify this with the tongue-in-cheek observation that if we are to apply Lao Tzu’s ancient words of wisdom to our current political situation it is clear that it is the US Republican party he is specifically warning us about. The proof is found in the stanzas directly below the warning against over-esteem: “If you overvalue possessions people begin to steal. The Master leads by emptying people’s minds… and toughening their resolve. He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion…” Sort of obvious who what party he’s talking about, isn’t it?

But seriously, the risk of making Mandela into a saint should be really be looked at in the context of what Mandela himself had to say about the matter: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

Let’s all keep pushing ourselves to keep following his “holy example” on that one.


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Filed under Death, Economics, History, Human Rights, Politics, Purpose, Racism, Respectability, Social identity

Monday’s Losses

Monday, April 8, 2013 will go down in history the day on which two particularly significant women passed from this life: Annette Funicello and Margaret Thatcher. I put them in that order on purpose. Maggie was the older of the two and the more recently famous, but Annette comes first alphabetically, and I honestly believe that she had the more positive influence on the world we live in. I stated in a Facebook status on Tuesday morning that I would not want to see Annette’s death overshadowed by Maggie’s, and this received mixed responses. So I thought I should explain why I see things that way.

Not that I am a huge fan or deep resenter of either of them –– and they each had plenty of both –– but I recognize both of these women as having reshaped people’s perspectives on how society should work and what makes people valuable. I don’t think either of them actually thought particularly deeply about the matter, but in following the paths that came naturally to them they both left a huge mark on the world in this regard –– probably greater than I ever will in both cases. Some consider the world to be better off for what one or the other of them contributed; some consider one or the other of them to have profoundly damaged the basic values that we should live by. I’m ready to take something of a middle position on both accounts.

Both of them had relatively full, rich and long lives. Both had been out of the public eye and profoundly disabled by degenerative diseases that eventually killed them for over a decade already, so it’s hard to consider either of their passings to be particularly tragic. Rather both provide especially good opportunities for reflection on what makes particular individuals, and human life in general, valuable. What values should we be fighting to protect from women like these, and what new perspectives represented by women like these should we be heartily embracing?

bikini-beach-annette-funicelloAnnette was the embodiment of two monumental cultural aspects of the 20th century: the Disney princess cult and the early years of rock and roll. Both have a rather mixed cultural legacy in terms of providing purportedly harmless entertainment while sending conflicted messages to young people about what they should be looking for in life and trying to make of their lives.

Disney was never edgy in the same way as Warner Bros cartoons. It was perfectly natural to see Bugs Bunny in drag starting to seduce Elmer Fudd, or to see Daffy Duck flying up to join a migrating flock of his own species promising, “I’m good company! I know lots of off-color jokes!” Mickey Mouse would never do or say anything of that sort. Even the pants-less Donald Duck gave no indication of ever being a sexual being in those sorts of ways. Old Uncle Walt was a stickler for traditional propriety. His amusement parks were famous not only for their wiz-bang adventure rides and tie-ins to children’s films of various sorts, but also for the clean cut, white bread image that all of their workers were required to maintain.

But Disney’s stock and trade was folk tales and fairy tales from various parts of the white-skinned world, with most of the brutal violence and sexual innuendo of the originals scrubbed out and replaced with post-war American Dream optimism of various sorts. Then to increase their market appeal new abstract forms of sex and violence were introduced: Chaotic but bloodless chase scenes, gun fights and brawls helped maintain the myth within Disney versions of these tales that with sufficient courage, determination and magical weapons of various sorts, good could always defeat evil in violent conflict. When it came to sexuality, all of the Disney female role models are built like Barbie Dolls, and boys’ and girls’ abstract desires to hug and kiss each other, and perhaps to run away together to take things further, were part of the essential dynamic of most classic Disney stories. Annette was basically a live action model who enabled Disney to present this fantasy princess character in more than animated form.

The sixties fundamentally screwed up that clean-cut cultural image for everyone though. Attempts to keep depicting the Beatles, the Beach Boys and their clones as “really nice young men” were destined to failure, and at the end of the decade Woodstock provided the perfect symbolic funeral for that fantasy of traditional respectability living on in popular youth culture. Annette, however, even while surrounded by armies of corny rockers and bikini-clad go-go girls, never stepped out of the wholesome, principled yet drool-worthy image of the real life Disney princess.

But regardless of the wholesomeness of her image, very carefully guarded by the Disney apparatus, Annette became the first child starlet of the television generation to go from being a cute little pre-pubescent girl to watch cartoons with to being a full-blown glamour girl and sex symbol. Her essential commercial value was based on being “lovable” in two very different senses. In this regard she paved the way not only for later generation Mouseketeers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, but for many other little show business girls who have had identity issues in the process of becoming sex symbols. The open question remains, is this a bad thing? Should we rather be steering little girls away from having a value based on their capacity to make boys hornier –– from living according to expectations set by men’s sexual fantasies? Or on the other hand, if some girls are able to play this sort of role while still maintaining a capacity to carefully choose their mates, and if they can eventually establish the sort of family life that they want for themselves, like Annette did (sort of), where’s the harm in that?

It could be argued that the whole underlying theme of the musical Grease –– written as a nostalgia piece about the fifties already in the seventies, and still running strong as a popular DVD and a staple of amateur theater nearly 40 years later –– was to explore the tensions and contradictions inherent in Annette’s public image. Whatever the case, she simultaneously played the roles of both the Disneyesque “good girl” and the object of teenage erotic desire with a rare sort of dignity. With her open display of intense sex appeal combined with her deep traditional values she leaves us asking ourselves how much we are willing to respect women who live up to our other cultural standards but willingly allow themselves to be sexually objectified–– a question worth asking ourselves repeatedly from era to era.

margaret-thatcherAnd then there’s Maggie. No one could accuse her of allowing herself to become a fantasy sex object –– quite the opposite. It is said that no one who really knew her would ever think of calling her “Maggie” even; such a casual nick-name was the total antithesis of her persona. But as she was a public figure who is otherwise a stranger to me, I’ll take the liberty.

Margaret Thatcher’s image and impact is based quite directly on not being attractive, and not being particularly lovable in any sense. To the extent that she is loved by anyone it is for her unsentimental attacks on the post-war socialist norms of British, European and global politics. She didn’t seem to care about people as people. She was more interested in whipping the lazy plebes into shape and getting things operating as efficiently as possible to fulfill the desires of the rich and powerful, and for this she made no apologies.

The hallmark of Thatcher’s reign was the Falklands War of 1982, where she sent the Royal Navy and Air Force to keep the Argentinians from permanently taking over these chunks of rock out in the south Atlantic. In order to keep these islands –– and the 3000 British subjects and 500,000 British sheep living on them –– British, as a matter of principle, Mrs. Thatcher decided that it was worth expending £3 billion and a thousand or so lives. More importantly, she couldn’t have remained in power to solidify her tax cuts for the rich and service cuts for the poor without such an exercise in reinforcing what was left of British imperial pride.

It says something further about Maggie that she considered Chile’s General Pinochet to be a good friend and Nelson Mandela to be a dangerous terrorist. Yet this was perfectly consistent with the rest of her agenda: busting up labor unions as far as possible, selling off government-owned corporations to finance tax cuts, arguing that economic polarization is not a bad thing, reducing government spending on poor families with children and offering them some potential savings in turn by making late-term abortions easier to come by. Yet many of my acquaintances in America’s religious right still want to see her as a cultural hero. Go figure.

Some consider Mrs. Thatcher to have been the British female equivalent to Ronald Reagan, and since Reagan is somehow seen as having improved the world, Thatcher too must have been a force for good. Their combined opposition to Communism and all political phenomena associated with such are believed to have been the final factors bringing about victory in the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact alliance.

After Thatcher, Reagan also began a new era of military adventurism and wars of choice. Seeing how well Thatcher’s little war off the coast of South America played out, a year and a half later Reagan decided to declare a little war of his own in the same region, seizing control of the little island country of Grenada. Grenada had become independent of Britain less than a decade earlier and it had been going through a string of unstable Marxist dictatorships ever since, so it looked like a pretty good place for the US to start restoring order in the world and telling these Marxists where to go. After that came the covert proxy war for control of the Central American country of Nicaragua, paid for by secretly selling weapons to Islamic dictatorships that the US Congress had refused to sign off on. Without Thatcher’s example of rebuilding national pride through military adventurism, Reagan might never have gone down such paths. Had that not happened, conceivably the Soviet house of cards that Thatcher’s other dear friend, Mikhail Gorbachev, was trying to keep standing, might have collapsed a bit more slowly. Revolutions in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania might have begun a little more hesitantly or they might conceivably have been quashed a bit more aggressively. This is probably just idle speculation, but it is the best justification I can think of for according some sort of historical respect to the Iron Lady.

The only other justification I can think of is that there were certain industries in Britain that were effectively stagnated and collapsing, but which were being kept standing by the government’s fear of civil unrest and voters’ rage were they to face the inevitable and close down these losing operations. Chief among these was their national coal mining industry. In order to get to a place where these hopeless ventures could be phased out and people would start looking for more sustainable long-term economic alternatives for their families and their villages was to have the sort of political leadership that didn’t care about causing pain to working people. Thus Thatcher’s natural lack of empathy may have enabled the country to make necessary transitions that a more humanly attuned leader would have kept trying to resist.

All the same, I find it rather tasteless for the British political left to have street parties celebrating Maggie’s death. I can appreciate the humor in playing “Ding-dong, the Witch is Dead” from The Wizard of Oz privately in honor of the occasion, but I can’t see a justification for marching down the street with banners making such a proclamation. Even less do I go along with further reinforcing this message by changing the W-word to the B-word there. It just becomes grossly inaccurate; Maggie had none of the loyalty, empathy and protectiveness that typifies female dogs, so she should not be posthumously referred to as such!

In any case, as I was saying, both of these ladies which passed on Monday were “important” in terms of having a significant influence on the world they lived in, albeit not necessarily an entirely positive influence in either case. In both cases their legacies leave us with the question of what makes particular people valuable and/or important. In Annette’s case her importance was based on the abstract, sanitized sensual attractiveness that she came to represent. In Maggie’s case it was a cold-hearted rational consideration of what particular people are useful for politically and economically that characterized her thinking and her impact on her era. Neither of these perspectives represent a value system that I can heartily endorse, but there are aspects of each worth paying heed to.

Something of a middle ground between Thatcherite and Funicelloian values can be found in Aristotle’s thought on the matter. Aristotle famously advised his son, Nichomachus, to establish his personal value through recognizing what various things make people happy –– things people come to desire for their own sake, not as a means of getting something else –– and to build strategic friendships and alliances with those who are the most capable of providing such happiness for others. The good man is one who can fairly exchange means of gaining happiness with others at the highest possible level. Some people have more to offer than others in this regard, but everyone has something to offer, even to his or her superiors, in terms of appreciation and respect. The satisfaction to be gained by receiving these intangible goods in exchange for other favors is not to be underestimated, but nor can it be assumed that having enough respect for another can be currency enough to settle all debts. In any case, however one does it, one must always take care to give as good as one gets, and get as good as one gives.

That taken into consideration, this would seem to leave us with a risk of seeing other people merely as means of satisfying our selfish, animalistic desires for physical pleasures or social dominance. The solution to this, and the point of life as I see it, is to move beyond that level of thought and desire, towards a more interconnected one. In this regard I agree strongly with the point made recently in a sermon by my good virtual friend, Brian Zahnd, where he cites Dostoevsky in defining hell as a place of not being able to love. Being able to meaningfully connect with others, not just as a means of getting “stuff” from them and not just in order to establish some sort of dominance over them, is what makes life truly worthwhile –– what keeps life from becoming hell for us. While I didn’t know either of them personally, of course, I have the strong impression that Annette seemed to get this a lot more clearly than Maggie did.

Whatever the case, may they both rest in peace, and may the better parts of their legacies go on to overpower the results of their limitations.

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Filed under Death, Empathy, Ethics, Love, Philosophy, Politics, Pop culture, Respectability, Sexuality, Social identity

The Problem with Death

This week’s post-grad seminar session began with our professor recommending that we be a little more disciplined in our discussions than last time… when I was rattling on about my viewpoints on things until a professor from another department knocked on the door and said it was her turn to use the room. I wasn’t singled out for discipline in any sense, but there was clearly a hint for me to take: new students in particular need to avoid the temptation to say everything they think they know about whatever subject comes up. This is one of the advantages of having a blog though: when I feel like I have something to say about a subject, and I’m not sure if anyone is actually interested or not, I can put my ideas up here for the perusal of those who are interested, and those who don’t really care can easily ignore my comments.

As it happens, I’ve given a fair amount of thought to the question that was up for discussion this week’s seminar gathering: the moral acceptability of suicide. To me the most important aspect of the question is to prevent kids from doing it, or even getting to the point of seriously considering it even if we can prevent that. The question is, can we find a philosophical justification for preventing suicide, especially in an across-the-board sort of manner?teen_suicide_in_black_and_white_tollie_international (1)

By way of background perspective, I had some friends who, in the 1980s, got to do a trans-Atlantic crossing together on a rather small ship. In fact one of them “accidentally” took my camera tripod along on that adventure to film the motion of the ship at “calmer moments” from the bridge and the deck. They all had plenty of stories to tell about the joys of extreme motion sickness under such circumstances. A common turn of the phrase for them was, “First you get to the point that you’re afraid that you might die. Then you get to the point where you’re afraid that you might not die!”

Émile_DurkheimI’ve known many people who have come to feel that way –– fearing that they might not die –– for many reasons other than sea sickness as well. Taken to the extreme where someone feels that all life has to offer is suffering, and the only way to escape from that suffering is to die as soon as possible, this leads to what Durkheim called fatalistic suicide. I find this particularly tragic especially in the case of young people, where there are so many possibilities beyond the horizon of pain that they are not able to see beyond, which lack of perspective robs them of. I would go as far as to say that adolescent suicide is, in my honest opinion, the greatest of all human tragedies, bar none.

From extensive first-hand and second-hand experience I can say that tragically painful situations, when (like seasickness) they don’t end up resolving themselves and going away entirely on their own, are things you end up getting used to. The human mind automatically starts to block out useless information about on-going states of affairs. As I sit writing this, for instance, no matter how hard I listen I can’t hear my own heart beating. I rationally know that the vibrations that my heart is sending to my ear drums are stronger than those coming from my refrigerator about 5 meters away, which in the quiet of my apartment I can actually hear. But since I can take for granted that if I am conscious my heart is actually beating, there is no real benefit to be had from hearing this organ’s function; so my mind blocks it out, enabling me to pick up smaller, less continuous stimuli that the sound of my own heart might otherwise cover up. My mind does the same with many other continuous physical and emotional stimuli as well. If it isn’t changing we can’t help but learn to ignore it. Or to put it in the terms that one friend said to me as I was struggling with the pain of my first divorce, “’You can get used to anything,’ said the man on his third day swinging from the gallows.” The sad part is to see how many people give up on life before they reach the point of peace with automatic acceptance of new sorts of limitations in life.

Two significant Hollywood films have tackled this question from the perspective of the tragically injured quadriplegics: Whose Life is it Anyway? and Million Dollar Baby. The question that such films and stories raise is, what is actually morally wrong with suicide in such cases? If the source of my basic joy in life is permanently gone, without the slightest hope of it returning, and I have nothing to look forward to in life but on-going, useless suffering, why should I be required to continue on with such an existence? Who has the right to place such a requirement on me? What gives them such a right?

The standard answer given in such cases is that if people would be allowed to give up whenever they cannot see beyond the horizon of pain they are faced with, society would suffer from too serious a series of deaths as a result. The suicide epidemic would be worse in this respect than the African AIDS crisis. And since we can’t just let everyone who feels that way go ahead and die, we need to set legal and moral standards which prohibit anyone from committing fatalistic suicide. The problem with this approach is that it frames the question as being one of a power struggle between the interests of the individual and those of the society, with an assumption that the good of the society has to take priority over the good of the individual. The same essential weakness is present in any argument that requires people to continue living just because it is “against God’s will” for them to die until “He takes them”: it assumes that individuals have the moral duty to suffer for some “greater good” regardless of what it does to their personal possibilities for satisfaction or thriving.

This is inherently related to questions of what makes human life as such valuable, who has the right and duty to defend particular human lives, when is it “natural” to allow lives to end, and on what authority can anyone be kept alive against their will. All of these questions have a long tradition of finding answers in the theological realm, and the process of attempting to answer them on purely non-theistic bases –– as a matter of principle for those who wish to avoid any morality based on theism –– has caused at least as many problems as it has solved thus far.

I could open up the question of whether or not we actually need to assume that humanity has any inherent value. Finland’s pioneering mass school shooter, Auvinen, posted on-line pictures of himself in a t-shirt which read, “Humanity is overrated.” Is that a philosophically and morally defensible position? My guess is that in the current age finding “serious moral philosophers” to defend such a position would be more difficult than it would have been for Anselm in his age to find the sort of “fool” who doubted the existence of God enough for him to test out his arguments properly. The postulate that human life has inherent value is the one thing that all ethical thought in our age seems to hold in common. Treating people as valuable only when they serve some purpose for those in positions of power is an age old problem, and many would say that such an attitude is the basis of the fundamental evils that any system of thought calling itself “ethics” has a duty to fight against.

Treating people as mere means of achieving some “greater good” rather than considering them (us) as inherently valuable entities unto themselves is what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted to prevent; this being, from the UN founders’ perspective, the most obvious means of preventing the evils of Nazism from freely reoccurring. It is fair to say that both religious and strictly secular authorities have had their own ideas of what sort of people are less valuable and more disposable than others, and these ideologies should be seen as equally evil. What we all theoretically agree on is that people should be considered important and valuable, and entitled to certain rights, just because they are people.

The question remains, however, as to how we are to conceptualize the basic human value that our ethical systems must be sworn to defend. Should it be on the basis of sentience, or intelligence, or capacity for empathy, or shared evolutionary interests, or some more “spiritual” factor? On this we have no consensus, and on this basis I continue to believe that religious approaches to the question deserve to be taken seriously. The only paradigmatic alternative is to postulate that evolutionary competition is the basis for all morality, and the risk of eugenic approaches following from such a paradigm cannot be readily dismissed. Suffice to say, I accept the proposal that we agree that human life is valuable in and of itself, and for the time being (for purposes of considering the moral status of suicide) the issue of its metaphysical reasons for being so can be set aside.

A related question that I believe can also be set aside as unresolved here is that of the complete extent of authentic volitional choice available to the individual with suicidal tendencies. Choice is never absolute, yet choice exists, else this whole debate is nonsense. It must be accepted as a basic given that nothing we do as human beings is the result of some abstract “free will” operating within a metaphysical vacuum. Everything we do has causes involved, including hormonal, environmental, genetic and behaviorally conditioned factors. Likewise it must be accepted that conscious choice as we experience it, to the extent that it is not demonstrably an illusion, should be accepted as a reality of the human condition. There are some things that we decide for ourselves, and were this not to be the case then to accuse any person of acting immorally would be as absurd of accusing the Atlantic Ocean of acting immorally in flooding New Jersey last October. We must postulate then that there is some extent to which people intentionally choose their actions, and some extent to which we can justifiably attempt to limit the extent which others can choose actions that we find particularly risky or offensive in some sense. And while it is theoretically possible that this choice factor is key to what makes human life valuable, we are not going to reach the point of basing or conditioning our defense of human life on such a factor.

Sea-sick-while-fishingAll that being said, when it comes to dealing with the issue of fatalistic suicide –– a person wishing to end her life because she sees no alternative path that it could take beyond continuous and meaningless suffering –– I’d like to come back to the question of my seasick friends. One of them actually did fall overboard and was rescued on that voyage, but none of them actually died, and some 30 years later the vast majority of those trans-Atlantic adventurers are happy to still be alive. Fearing that they might not die in their deepest moments of suffering was a passing phenomenon. Most of them were intelligent enough to realize this at the time, and for those who weren’t, their friends took responsibility for keeping them alive even if was against their will at the time.

The logic of preventing suicide in these cases is obvious. These friends were able to return to life very much as they knew it before their painful experiences. But what about those who lose some significant part of their physical and intellectual joys in life? What if they can no longer walk, or drive, or use their hands, or see, or hear, or have sex? What if their brains become damaged to the point where they can’t they can’t any longer appreciate great literature, or recognize their loved ones, or control their emotions in a dignified manner? At what point are they allowed to say, “Enough is enough”? And how can we find a way to draw the line between these cases and those in the above paragraph?

Obviously there are no black and white moral answers here, especially in cases where medical science keeps bodies functioning long after their diminished capacities would “naturally” have shut them down. But we also need to remember that human life as we know it is a terminal disease. All of us are getting older all the time, and all of us are continuously, progressively losing particular important abilities. Eventually this process kills us –– every one of us. The real moral question here is, how far we can justifiably intentionally slow down or speed up the actual dying process under given circumstances? What is lost when death comes sooner than it “rightfully should”? What is gained by “getting it over with” in certain sorts of particularly hopeless cases?

I believe there need to be two operative rules of thumb here: First, with time the transitional pains that go with the onset of illness, injury or personal trauma of any sort have a tendency to pass or to become easier to live with, and we need to allow time to “do its work” in this regard before making room for rash decisions. Of course certain things may never be the same, and certain opportunities and capacities can never be restored, but life has a way of offering us surprising new forms of satisfaction when we let it. Getting those who are depressed due to acute pain and sense of personal loss past their immediate crisis is thus the first moral priority. Second, though there may be some cases where things have become irreparable and new joys in life are entirely out of the question –– where continuous entropy is entirely inevitable and justifiable to avoid –– it is still far better to ere on the side of preserving life too long than on the side of ending it too quickly.

But all this this really only covers one of four aspects of suicide that Durkheim’s seminal work on the subject identified. At the other extreme from the fatalistic we have the case of anomic suicide, where the individual feels that his or her life is too far out of control to be enjoyed any further; where rather than certainty of pain, the person feels lost in a sense of uncertainty about all that she considers to be existentially important. In such cases the act of ending one’s own life can be the last ditch effort necessary to prove to oneself that there is something I’m still in control of. For these people I believe that it is important to put them into the sort of therapy where they come to realize that there are more important things in life than a sense of control. The fact that many people never realize this is tragic enough, but it doesn’t have to be something worth dying for. Then again, when dying becomes the symbolic object of a power struggle against others and the world, there are limits to how much you can help a person with therapy.

That covers the suicides caused, in Durkheim’s analysis, by too much or too little predictability in life. That leaves those which are caused by too much or too little personal connection with those around us. Those who feel detached from society –– who give up on life because no one seems to care, or who decide to end their lives as a form of revenge against those who “should have cared more” –– commit what Durkheim’s translators called “egoistic suicide”. The opposite extreme to this is those who risk or sacrifice their own lives “for the good of others,” thus committing “altruistic suicide.” In both of these cases our moral priority seems to be to avoid these suicides being based on mistaken premises and, ironically in both cases, to encourage all the greater level of social connection.

When an egoistic suicide attempt is viewed as a “cry for help,” we are actually prone to actually give the suicidal person what they want in some form; that is unless we consider them to be unreasonably demanding and incapable of recognizing the importance of others in turn. But rather than a moral issue or an individual mental health issue, we tend to take egoistic suicide attempts as a sign that we have some repairs to do on our social structures. Thus the prevalence of teen suicide in Finland and Japan is one of the strongest signs we have of a need to fix some aspects of the school systems in these countries. Some blame goes to the individuals in question, but more goes to the system.

spocks death scene

The classic scene of Spock’s self-sacrifice is something that no one would dare to moralize against.

When it comes to altruistic suicides, unless they are suffering from a tragically delusional messiah complex we tend to treat them as heroes: the soldier who falls on a grenade to save his comrades, the firemen who rush into the burning World Trade Center on 9/11, the nuclear power engineer who goes into the highly contaminated reactor area to shut down the reaction and save the local village, the mother who is killed in defending her daughter against brutal rape by invading soldiers… all heroes. As long as they are doing something authentically important in sacrificing their lives, we tend to praise them for doing so. That may be a matter of society callously encouraging people to consider their own lives less important than the society’s shared objectives, or it might be a matter of recognizing some things to be more important than the prolonging of the physical processes of human life for their own sake.

In the latter sense these altruistic suicides can be compared with recreational drug users and extreme sports enthusiasts. In both cases it could be argued that the risk of death, or the extreme likelihood of death, is not the primary objective of the action, but it is considered a valid risk to take / price to pay for the benefit potentially gained by the action. So the question is whether or not the audience offering the moral evaluation agrees with the pro-and-con assessment implicit in the risk-taker’s actions. To save other people’s lives, sure, we’ll morally accept that choice. To experience an ever increasing heroin high, no, we’re not likely to accept that as a valid trade-off. To get the adrenalin rush of pushing out the envelope with your stunt performances, reviews are likely to be mixed. In any case, whether your actions are accepted by others or not there’s some truth to the adage that there’s no point in prolonging your survival if you never really live; and if this process of really living shortens your period of survival in some cases, you can be at peace with that –– even if, strictly speaking, you might not be able to “live with that”.

Life is short; there’s no getting around that fact. Eventually, inevitably, death has to become part of life for all of us. But if we can keep ourselves and those around us from making life even shorter than it has to be, that has to be a step in the right direction. I still agree with Kierkegaard though, that the point of life is to find something worth living and dying for, and no amount of longevity can replace that sort of purpose in life. A death that reflects a deeper purpose is far to be preferred to an extended life without such. But some sort of life has to keep going for that purpose to be revealed and realized, and the longer that extended life can be my own, the more successful I will consider myself to be at the art of living. I wish that as many others as possible would have the same sort of success, and that as few as possible would end up getting short-changed in this regard –– especially by their own hand. Your mileage may vary.

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Filed under Death, Ethics, Human Rights, Philosophy, Purpose, Risk taking, Spirituality

The NRA Dilemma

I have a sin to confess: over the time this weekend when I should have been composing something profound, spiritual and philosophically outstanding for my first blog of the year, instead I allowed myself to become embroiled in a silly, useless political debate on Facebook. The subject really wasn’t even all that important: gun control.  But seeing as I’ve killed a good part of my weekend writing about such absurdities already, I may as well keep going with them here and rattle off a bit of my side of that argument as entertainment for those of you who’ve come here looking for something new to read this week.

This is actually only a matter of life and death for about 90 Americans per day, which is about even with the number killed in car accidents each day. But the car accident figures have been steadily declining in recent years, while the firearm death statistics have been slowly but steadily rising. But then again over half of these firearm deaths are suicides, so if you those don’t bother you morally then you might see the dimensions of this crisis as considerably smaller.

The incidents people tend to get all excited about are the mass murders, like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary school last month (that various religious rectums considered to be a sign of God’s judgment on those who accept homosexuality as part of their culture). Sandy Hook was actually the last and most deadly in a series of 10 mass shooting incidents which occurred in the United States during 2012. All together the journalists from Mother Jones counted up 151 victims from these events, of which roughly half survived their ordeals. So these mass tragedies didn’t even amount to a full percentage point in the annual firearm homicide statistics, in what turned out to be a particularly productive year for mass killings. But even so the question remains, are these deaths really inevitable? If not, what can and should we be doing to stop such killings?

The debate inevitably comes back around to the Second Amendment to the United States’ Constitution:

“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

Punctuation conventions have changed in the past 200 years, but that’s beside the point. The debate has raged since this document was (literally) penned as to whether it was intended to give every individual the right to equip himself to kill other people, or whether it the main issue was to give everyone so inclined the right to participate in their local militia, so long as they could do so in a well-regulated manner. Courts have generally leaned towards the former interpretation. As Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” famously pointed out, being afraid of the native peoples they were killing off, the threat of British re-colonization, slave rebellions and later civil rights unrest made the issue of defending of individual household’s capacities to kill people a strong emotional concern for many white people. Thus the Founding Fathers quite clearly envisioned a militia system where every citizen with a gun would be ready to take orders in a well-regulated manner from a state-approved commander, but they would still be allowed to keep their guns at home just in case any uninvited guests with darker skin or a red coat came around unexpectedly.

Since that time slavery has been officially abolished, the native population has been effectively stomped out (everywhere except in Bingo halls and casinos), the British have become nothing more than a mid-sized member of the European Union, securely under the US sphere of influence, and the only hostile foreigners the average American is at any risk of meeting in day to day life are those who have come to the US to sell drugs. In other words, the security concerns of the Founding Fathers have long since ceased to be relevant in everyday life, but that hasn’t reduced Americans’ emotional dependence on their guns. And since there is an established tradition of individuals having the right to bear arms, over a quarter of US households continue to do so; especially rural and southern white households. And all in all the number of guns in the US these days is slightly higher than the number of people.

I find it rather sad and anachronistic that more Americans are aware of the Second Amendment than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; that they consider the right to be equipped to kill people a more important basic right than the right to get an education, or the right to marry freely, or the right to have access to medical care. But I’ve been told that this is just a sign that I’ve become too Europeanized, and I’ve lost track of the sacred values that God has given to the United States. Perhaps so.

In any case, even among those who consider the Second Amendment to be sacred scripture, never to be violated in terms of keeping guns out of households, there is some sort of consensus that not all the latest advances in military technology should be available to the general public. There isn’t any broad public support for the idea of private individuals and motorcycle clubs having access to weapons grade plutonium for instance.  Certain forms of destructive power should be strictly limited to government use, and even there we should ideally have strong international restrictions in place to limit what crazy dictators and revolutionary armies can get their hands on. In practice this doesn’t work nearly so well as in theory, but it’s a beautiful theoretical restriction to talk about.

So how much firepower is actually justifiable to allow private individuals and individual households to have as a show of respect for the traditional interpretation of the Second Amendment? It would have to be at least as much as the single shot muzzle-loaders that the Founding Fathers were familiar with, but it would have to be less than a tactical nuke. That leaves considerable room for negotiation on the matter.

Now I wouldn’t want to underestimate the paranoia of gun fanatics with a siege mentality, but those who are still capable of strategic planning would probably recognize that even if their worst nightmares were to come true they would not need to be able to kill more than 3 or 4 people in the process of their self-defense. Thus for truly self-defensive emergency use anything more than an old fashioned six-shooter is actually redundant. Likewise there is no particular advantage in emergency home defense to being able to fire off more than one round per second; outside of zombie apocalypse video games attackers cannot be expected to come at you any faster than that. So while mass murderers might want something that fires faster and longer, those who are honestly thinking in purely defensive terms have no reason to hold weapons that shoot faster than one round per second, or more than ten rounds per clip. That should be quite enough to keep a van full of any suspiciously “other” looking attackers at bay until the police arrive.

NYP LaPierreThat’s about as much as can be rationally justified by the questionable logic of NRA boss Wayne LaPierre’s claim that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” so no gun purchased for private defensive purposes needs to have more killing power than that. And since a viable rule of thumb is that the less killing power you have out on the streets, the fewer people get killed, one rational starting point in protecting public safety would be to restrict the capacities of legally obtainable personal firearms for civilian use to no more than that.

Now weapons which are intended for declaring war on various forms of winged and antlered wildlife are a slightly different story. These weapons have no need to be loaded or fully assembled when one is not out on the warpath, a safe distance from other human beings… unless you happen to be Dick Cheney. So it is perfectly reasonable to have a law prevents hunting weapons from being kept at home in an assembled, loaded and unlocked state; and the more forms of back-up safety the law requires in this regard, the safer the public will be. And with these weapons as well, if you don’t have the skill to kill your prey with one of your first 10 shots, you really have no business out there hunting to begin with; so there’s no particularly logical reason to allow hunters to carry guns with a higher capacity than that. Likewise rapid fire capacity is of limited practical value in the woods or in the field, so what justification is there for putting that sort of deadly force in civilian hands in the name of sport hunting?

Then there are those who simply find it therapeutic to blast the hell out of inanimate objects. Though questioning where such compulsions actually come from –– and how necessary it is for society to indulge them in general –– is a fascinating matter unto itself, in practical terms this hobby need not be a problem. It is generally something to be indulged within carefully secluded locations, commonly known as gun clubs, and there is no practical reason for the guns used in such forms of amusement to ever leave the gun clubs in question. As long as there are security precautions in place that reliably keep these guns off the streets, there’s no reason why they can’t be as fast or as powerful as necessary for the fetishists in question to achieve their chosen type of satisfaction.

But as the old adage goes, guns don’t kill people; people kill people. More specifically, people who think they can keep themselves safe and solve their social problems using guns kill people. So really the best way to prevent people from killing people is to have very thorough medical, psychological, legal and operational examinations of each perspective gun owner before they are licensed to purchase or carry a gun. Call it the equivalent of the special testing and examinations that my son had to go through before he was allowed to get a taxi driver’s license. Especially when you take the first clause of the Second Amendment into consideration –– arms being born by the general population for purposes of enabling a well-regulated militia –– requiring that the bearers of these arms are capable of using them in a well-regulated manner is perfectly sensible. Those who are not capable of being so regulated, or those who consider such regulation to be a violation of their basic privacy, simply don’t need to be given permission to carry guns; “the people” in general can organize the militias, and less formal types of civil defense if the government so permits, without such individuals being included. If those individuals feel too personally threatened to sleep securely without a weapon at their side, what they need is not personal firepower but public hospitalization.


Click on image for the story line from the film “Waking Life”

Even then there will always be clever psychopaths and emotionally unstable individuals who will slip through the cracks of legal gun control. The regulations suggested above would not eliminate all firearms deaths in the United States. At best enacting Canadian or European style gun control laws in the US would bring the shooting death rates down to something like a higher end European level: only cutting fatalities by something like 70 % — saving a mere 20,000 or so lives per year. (That’s actually roughly half the number of lives that will be saved each year by “Obamacare,”  but that’s rather of beside the point.) To get somewhere closer to an OECD average level in such matters the US will need to improve its national mental health care system (especially for all of the traumatized veterans returning from the wars Bush started in the Middle East) an begin a public service and public education advertising campaign similar to the one used to make people aware of the dangers of smoking.

In fact the parallels between smoking and bearing arms actually run considerably deeper than that. Traditions of gun ownership and tobacco use are both based on an 18th and 19th century understanding of how one might go about living a healthy and secure life. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries both of these grew into huge and incredibly profitable businesses, in turn having a significant influence on the ways in which US government institutions evolved. But during the course of the mid-20th century it became apparent that the products of both industries were significantly reducing people’s life expectancies, and a rush was on to find ways of keeping the general public from realizing this. Both the cigarette and gun manufacturers thus initiated elaborate public relations campaigns, creating images of their products as sexy, strength-building, life enhancing and capable of bringing people into closer contact with nature. Both could not have helped but know better. The tobacco industry’s con game in this regard was thoroughly exposed in the 1970s; the arms manufacturers’ lobbying organization, the NRA, has stayed operational for considerably longer, but with little remaining credibility in the eyes of anyone capable of reading the statistical chart shown here.

In case some of you are not capable of interpreting that chart, it basically shows that the only countries with firearm death rates equivalent to or higher than that of the United States are those which have major business interests selling drugs in the US and buying guns in return, and those which have been through traumatic civil wars or major coups within the past generation and which remain deeply divided from the dynamics of those struggles. That basically accounts for all of them. What puts the US up among such nations is that no other country in the world has such an obscenely influential arms industry promotion organization as the US does in the NRA.

I strongly believe that NRA, like the tobacco lobby, needs to be shut down and prosecuted for deceiving the American people into buying products that have resulted in millions of unnecessary deaths, all for purposes of increasing their corporate profits. To deny that this has happened or to say they didn’t know any better is blatantly absurd. There is no reason to be particularly optimistic about the current crop of politicians having the balls to do this, but this is a form of action that the American people need to start calling out for, especially those who are educated enough to recognize the industry’s intentional deception for what it is.

My reason for spouting about this topic continuously is somewhat a reaction to one particular absurdity I became aware of in recent years: my life was statistically in less danger walking around as a crazy white man on the streets of South Africa than it was traveling around visiting family and friends in the US! There is no rational reason to allow American society to continue deteriorating, or to continue falling behind the rest of the world, in these sorts of ways. Hopefully within the coming years enough people will recognize the absurdity of this situation to get a political process in motion that might fix it.


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Filed under Death, Ethics, Human Rights, Insanity, Politics

Facing my Fears

I’ve been writing this over the weekend between Halloween and the American presidential election, following a major hurricane essentially closing down the northeastern United States for two days, once again drawing attention to the question of human caused global climate change; when both news and entertainment media have reached some sort of crescendo in giving people things to be afraid of.  Meanwhile I’m sitting here in a state of low-grade stress over the state of paperwork that actually makes relatively little difference in the big picture of things, wondering what, if anything I should really be afraid of in life.

Stereotypical horror movies and thrillers have to do with people facing the threat of something important being taken away from them: their lives, their families, their homes, their basic freedoms, their social respectability, their chances of being loved, etc. Other’s play off of deep-seated fight or flight reflexes when faced with certain stimuli: blood, corpses, snakes, spiders, storms… whatever. Rationally or irrationally, people get the impression that they stand to lose their life or something else very important to them, and they freak out with a massive adrenalin rush.

I have to confess a certain ambivalence towards all of these. At this age I’m largely numb to such artificial stimulations of fear reflexes, and to one extent or another, at various points along the way, I’ve already lost most of the things (other than my life and health) that thrillers and politicians try to play off of threats to. The thing I’d be most unquestionably willing to stand up and fight for, at the expense of my own life if necessary, would be the safety and well-being of my sons; but they are adults already, more capable of protecting and taking care of themselves than I am of taking care of either of them. As a divorced father and a foreigner in Finland every part of my closeness to them as children that could be stolen from me was stolen from me. Threats to what I have left in terms of home, respectability and opportunities for love are not particularly worth worrying about at this point.

Over the past year and some, with my African experiences and all, I’ve faced the possibility of my own death many times: I clobbered myself in the head with an axe, I locked myself into a confined space with an alpha-male baboon, I was involved in a traffic incident where a pickup slammed into me as I was riding a bicycle, I got lost by bicycle in one of South Africa’s most dangerous slums, I faced a cobra in the wild at a distance of less than two meters, and then last month I had a car burst into flames while I was driving it. All of these are true stories which, in retrospect, were matters of my own carelessness and probably weren’t that big a deal. Yes, in theory any one of those incidents could have got me killed, but they are now stories I just tell for laughs. When I die it is likely to be from something predictable and boring, probably related to long-term effects of diet and lifestyle. I’m trying to make adjustments so as to not rush that process, but fear for my life is not a major part of my everyday existence.

I also had encounters with large cockroaches, large spiders and once with a scorpion in my apartment in Africa last year. The scorpion would have objectively been the most dangerous of these, but those who know tell me that its sting wouldn’t have killed me; it would have just made me wish I was dead. Yes, I must admit, the idea of extreme pain of many sorts makes me very uncomfortable. I’m not at all sure that I would hold up well to waterboarding, fingernail removal or dentistry without Novocain, to say nothing of kidney stones or scorpion stings. On that level there are plenty of things capable of frightening me in terms of the threat of physical pain, but in the cinema or the media these things are actually rather unlikely to have much of an effect on my adrenalin levels.

As I age I’ve noticed that my luxuriant hair and unusually sharp eyes have been getting noticeably thinner and weaker in recent years. Nor can I run as fast as I used to or work as hard as I once could without getting tired. So far that too is more of a joke than a serious threat for me, but I wonder sometimes of the aging process is something I should be more afraid of. I actually don’t see the point though; it’s happening to me at the same rate as to pretty much anyone else of my generation. The real question is, have I got enough done with my various physical capacities before progressively losing them? I hope there is still time to deal with my various forms of laziness in that regard before I lose my faculties entirely though.

What about the world at large? Should I be afraid of what will be happening to the environment, the economy, personal freedoms, etc.? On one level I hope to do my part in enabling my own sons and those young people in whose lives I’ve personally invested as a teacher to be able to grow up, have children of their own, and raise them in a safe, secure and enjoyable environment –– not in a continuous state of war or the leftover destruction therefrom –– but I’m not going to waste too much energy getting paranoid about such things. It is extremely unlikely that any of these in whom I have this sort of personal investment will ever have life as difficult or dangerous in physical terms as does my black friend George in Cape Town; to say nothing of their security and well-being ever dropping to the level of that of residents of Gugulethu –– the slum I got lost in that time –– or of the refugees moving back and forth between Syria and Iraq these days.

My ancestors 150 years ago in the Netherlands actually lived through a rather brutal struggle for existence on the heath land outside of the small villages there, comparable in many ways to what I witnessed in Africa. Food, shelter and medical care could never be taken for granted.  They lost as many children on average as they saw through to adulthood. I want to work to insure that the risk of returning to that state of affairs is as small as possible for those close to me. I also want to help get as many people as possible who are still in such a state of affairs out of it. But this is less a matter of fear for me than it is a matter of sorrow at current ongoing suffering and hope for improvements in the future.

When it comes to politics, on one level I am afraid that those who have no concept of human suffering and the difficulties of the world’s poor will make matters worse for them. This has been going on for most of human history already, so I don’t see it as a new and horrible threat. I just hope that we can limit the callous disregard for the poor of our own generation slightly better than our ancestors did. Alas, worldwide since the 1980s, with the exception of the ending of Apartheid, things seem to have been going in the wrong direction in this regard pretty much across the board. Things are not hopeless, but things are not getting better as they should be.

Beyond this there is the question of the impact we are having on our environment(s).  On a smaller scale there is absolutely nothing new about this. Since mankind discovered fire people have been dying of carbon-monoxide poisoning and other effects of pollution caused by each other’s lifestyles. The early residents of the Easter Islands managed to deforest the whole territory, thus making life as they knew it there impossible to continue. It doesn’t seem at all likely that we will drive our entire species extinct with this sort of short-sighted behavior, but we are almost certain to kill millions of people through greedy struggles for resources or accidental carelessness a few more times before the end of human history. The only real question as far as the environment is concerned is how far the radical changes we are causing will effect which parts of the world are inhabitable for humans and which aren’t , and how many billions of poor people will end up dying because of this?  In the case of the Dust Bowl and many other  environmental disasters over the years –– including the various extinctions or near extinctions plants and animals vital to the economies of the times –– people have shown a remarkable ability to ignore warnings and believe that they can continue on with their ultimately self-destructive lifestyles  until long after the problem becomes too obvious to ignore. Do I want to try to prevent such problems? Of course. Do they seriously scare me personally? Not so much.

Other stereotypical aspects of fear or terror to be addressed are those of the supernatural sort: witches, demons, werewolves, ghosts and various sorts of reanimated dead people.  It would be fair to say that even the most superstitious among us would be willing to admit that these fears are more a matter of getting an adrenalin rush out of old wives tales than anything else.  Are there historical precedents for some of these story types? Sure. Is there any reason for me to be afraid of them? I seriously doubt it.

The most plausible threat among these would be demon possession, which, regardless of your supernatural beliefs, in the vast majority of cases at least can be explained quite well as some form of mental illness or another.  That doesn’t make such people any less creepily destructive to themselves and those around them, but it puts the actual powers they have into perspective. Perhaps more frightening to me than the risk of demons taking over people’s bodies though is the fact that more American Republicans believe in this than believe in human caused global warming. The one is supernatural explanation of an extremely limited phenomenon at best, and an overly dramatized old wives’ tale at worst; the other is a scientific hypothesis to explain strong globally observable trends that increasingly effect everyday life. If increased tornados and rising sea levels are explained as unavoidable acts of God, or as signs of God’s wrath on sinful regions, rather than as the effects of ways in which we are screwing up the planet we live on, that could lead to a lot of very bad things both socially and environmentally in the coming generations.

And that actually ties into an entirely different area of fear: evangelical Christians’ fear of the coming of the Antichrist. This is a rather bizarre phenomenon that I discussed in a blog 1½ years ago, but in essence the idea is that inevitably history as we know it will end with a powerful leader coming on the scene and convincing everyone that he will do the sort of things that for the past 2500 years the Jews have been expecting their Messiah to do when he comes: establishing world peace, providing justice for the poor, ushering in a new age of prosperity, etc. According to Bible prophesy though, this presumed hero consequently turns out to be the ultimate villain, eventually using the personal power he amasses to prevent the free worship of God and to establish absolute control over the national and global economy.  This sort of reading of the book of Revelation is the mother of all dystopias. Basically every particularly strong American or world leader since Abraham Lincoln –– anyone presenting viable promises of unity, peace and prosperity without sucking up to the evangelical Christian community in the process –– has been labeled as a potential Antichrist.

There are of course many ways of interpreting such Biblical teachings, ranging from the various “reinterpretations through fresh revelation” that happened in mid-nineteenth century America to the complete dismissal of Revelation as gnostic nonsense that the fourth century church was mistaken to include in the cannon of scripture. My own current take on such matters is rather ambivalent, but there are a few things I know for sure:
– The writers of the Bible were somewhat surprised and disappointed not to see Jesus’ return in glory and the final battle of the apocalypse within their own lifetimes. That in itself should tell us something.
– The theme of power corrupting otherwise good and effective leaders is an eternally relevant theme unto itself, which isn’t necessarily any more relevant to one strong leader than another.
– Persecutions of Christians and other groups for their religious identities have been happening on a more or less regular basis since long before the book of Revelation was written. It’s hard to imagine how any final fulfillment of tale told there could still be unique or especially fear-worthy in that regard.
– In the end of the story in Revelation, after an intense war much shorter than the current Iraq War, “good” wins and remains triumphant for 1000 years (roughly half the amount of time that has passed since its writing), so believers who are actually expecting such things to happen really shouldn’t be all that scared to begin with.

Yet in spite of all that, labeling someone as an Antichrist remains an effective fear-mongering tool among certain Christian groups. Under these circumstances I actually find assertions that some politician or another is the Anti-Christ to be far more embarrassing than frightening.

But taking things from a Biblical perspective, one of the most psychologically profound verses in the Bible, which was actually written by the same fellow who wrote the Revelation, is 1 John 4:18: There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

As I see it that can be taken in at least two ways:  First of all love implies trust and good will towards each other.  Torturing the loved one and getting into power struggles just to prove who’s in charge are imperfections in love. If we can believe that there’s an all-powerful God out there who loves us too perfectly to allow our lives to randomly become hell, we really have nothing to be afraid of.  Having this sort of confidence can enable us to live in a fearless way that can enable us to be far more productive in life. But then there is the Bible’s book of Job which contemplates the fact that sometimes we do end up going through hell in ways that don’t figure with our understanding of a just and loving God being out there taking care of us. There are many interpretations on this one, but the only thing that is clear is that bad things do happen to good people and we all have our limits. So the blind trust that nothing will ever go wrong with God watching out for us can lead to all sorts of problems and disappointments in life. All things in moderation on that one I say, and on to other aspects of the verse.

Beyond providing a sort of imaginary safety net for other forms of happiness though, I believe that love provides a form of happiness unto itself that trumps all others. This is what I was talking about in terms of happiness by way of connection. The more perfect the love, the less risk there is that it will break down and leave one feeling isolated and abandoned. Beyond that, love gives one a sense that something significant about me that will go on after my physical life is over. Thus love is in many respects more important than life itself. If you know that you are loved –– that you are somehow deeply and personally connected with other people and/or things/principles beyond yourself –– that makes it a lot easier not to be afraid of various forms of crap that life brings your way. Perfect love enables you to know that what is ultimately most important to you in life can never be taken away from you.

Have I ever experienced truly perfect love? Of course not, but I have had some pretty satisfying and lasting personal connections, and I hope to have still more of them and better ones before my life is over. Building such connection, and in this way “looking for love” is in many respects the purpose of my life. Reading, writing, on-line interactions, teaching and trying to promote various forms of humanitarian work are all part of this for me. If these connections are real no one can take them away from me.  The better they are, the less I have to be afraid of in all other aspects of life.

In the worst case scenario of Romney getting elected, or of a new US civil war breaking out because of redneck hatred for Obama, thousands if not millions of people around the world will die unnecessarily because of generalized American stupidity.  There is nothing unprecedented about this though; people have been dying because of the callous greed and stupidity of others since the beginning of time. And among those who are at greater risk of dying because of American political policies clearly for many of them their own stupidity also figures into the question. So we’re not talking about a terror dystopia here; we’re talking about forms of gross injustice that we’ve always had continuing and intensifying. Of course I want to do everything I can to prevent that from happening, but am I afraid of it? Not in the strictest sense of the word.

The apocalyptic visions of those on the religious and economic far right probably serve as far better tools for fear-mongering than what anyone left of center has to offer, and sadly fear is often a far more effective motivational tool than hope when it comes to politics. I would like to believe that most of my countrymen are not so dumb as to fall for that, but there is a reasonably good chance that they might be.

That leaves me with the moral question: if the only way to save lives is to try to artificially scare the crap out of people, does that make fear-mongering the morally right thing to do? Perhaps in some cases it could be, but at this point I’m not inclined to believe that such an end would justify such a means. Increasing people’s sense of fear has a way of getting out of control, not to mention all of the intangible satisfactions in life that living in fear steals from everyone. If I’m going to complain about American Republicans putting their party interest ahead of the good of the country and the world, it would be hypocritical to start harming people’s sense of well-being for the sake of political advantage for the other side.

So even if hope to save millions of lives is not as effective a political tool as an artificial apocalypse or a self-fulfilling prophesy of mass destruction, I’m sticking with the former. If the worst happens because of this, I can face my fears and believe that my life has hope, value and purpose regardless. I hope the rest of you can too.


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Filed under Death, Love, Politics, Religion, Risk taking, Sustainability

On the Abortion Question

I must confess that I’ve become a regular follower of the new television series, ”The Newsroom”, and I was particularly touched by one aspect of episode 6 that was on here a couple weeks ago. In it a gay black man, working as a teacher, was coming out in support of a candidate who didn’t believe gay men should be allowed to work as teachers. His reason for supporting this candidate was that he believed that the most important political issue that he could possibly confront was abortion, and this anti-gay candidate happened to be, in his opinion, the best possible candidate to advance the agenda he saw as a priority. The anchorman, “Will” had a crisis of conscience after the fact for harassing this fellow about the seeming contradictions in his politics: supporting a candidate who wouldn’t respect him as a person because of his sexuality. To this the fellow replied, quite heatedly but eloquently, that he didn’t need any liberals to stand up for him, and that he refused to let anyone define his politics for him based on his race, his sexuality or anything else. He could choose for himself what he will stand for, and what he chose to stand for was to fight against abortion.

I in fact know many people from the US for whom abortion is THE political question, most commonly on the basis of a perception that this is the only possible “Christian” position on the subject. Most of them go on from there to look for ideological and religious justifications to agree with other aspects of their favorite candidates’ positions, provided that these candidates are sufficiently dogmatic in their opposition to abortion.  I respect the moral character of these old friends of mine to stand up for a cause that they believe in and to make that a political priority even, but I don’t like what it does to their integrity when they find themselves drawn into supporting other positions which would seem to be fundamentally opposed to their basic identity in the process. But then again, I want to try to limit myself in terms of my rights to define what their basic identities are –– politically, socially, spiritually or in any other sense.

For many people abortion is a major emotional issue because the whole idea of babies tugs pretty hard at the heartstrings of pretty much all human beings. Toss around magnified images of second trimester fetuses which look even more baby-like than newborn babies themselves and we’re talking maximum emotional stimulation for women in particular. Telling someone thus stimulated that the subject causing this reaction in them is not actually a person is a fool’s errand at best. Toss in a few verses from the Psalms about God shaping us in the womb and you have a perfect emotional storm.

When I was still in Bible college in Massachusetts in the early 80s I was assigned this sort of suicide mission. It was an English class that I would have been exempted from, were it not for the fact that I naturally write rather slowly; thus I didn’t get enough of the essay questions on the proficiency exam done to get the points needed for exemption, but that’s rather beside the point. Suffice to say the basic course material was hardly challenging for me. The areas in which the course required effort was in speeding up my writing and keeping myself out of trouble regarding my attitude.

In any case, part of the course was oral and written debating skills –– areas in which I was already supremely over-confident at that point. Those who were less confident in the matter picked out propositions that they were quite confident they could defend, regardless of their limited rhetorical skills. Others were randomly assigned to argue against the propositions they came up with.  Most of these were things that someone could present a counter argument on without being branded as a heretic: like whether “speaking in tongues” was the definitive evidence of “being filled with the Spirit,” or whether complete abstinence from alcohol should be a moral requirement for all Christian believers.  All well and good until this one sweet and sensitive young lady stated that she was going to argue for the proposition, “All abortion is premeditated murder.” Guess who was assigned to be the opponent on that one.

Needless to say, I chose to lose that debate on purpose, with the potentially lower grade being far less of a risk than being labeled as the campus abortion advocate.

I still don’t feel particularly comfortable defending the whole idea of abortion. Sometimes this still puts me in a rather awkward position. Next month I’ll once again be coming to the part of the ninth grade religious education curriculum where I will have to conduct classroom discussions about the morality of abortion, and in over a decade of teaching this subject I have never been able to do so without feeling rather stressed over it. My basic approach has evolved into a method of introducing the subject by saying that there are four forms of ending human life that are legally permitted in various parts of the western world. In alphabetical order those would be abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia and warfare.  All of these are morally problematic, but for various reasons some people find some of them more morally acceptable than others. I then take an in-class survey of which of these the ninth graders themselves find to be the most and least immoral. Almost without exception the vast majority within each such class finds warfare to be the most immoral and abortion to be the least immoral of these four ways of taking human life. From there I attempt to Socraticly question why they have chosen as they have, and if possible I try to organize a more formal panel debate over some of the issues raised, but rarely are there any students here (in Finland) who wish to take a public stand against abortion in such a context. I’m generally left in the position of stating a few distinct facts about the matter:

  • Whatever else can be said about abortion, it is a physically and emotionally traumatic experience for the girl in question, and I would seriously hope that none of the young ladies before me there would ever have to go through such an experience.
  • The risks inherent in sex should be taken seriously, and even if one does not believe in the traditional morality of only having sex after marriage it is important to be very careful, very selective and not at all in a hurry about finding sex partners.
  • If they are not able to talk frankly and honestly with a potential partner about all aspects of sex, including birth control, intercourse should be quite out of the question, and there should never be an attitude of, “well, if you get pregnant there’s always abortion.”
  • All that being said, in my experience it is more than likely each of these kids, prior to graduating high school, will have had a classmate or two who has had an abortion, though it would be unlikely that they would actually find out about it. Hopefully if they do find out about such matters they will be able to treat the girl in question with an appropriate level of tact, respect and if necessary, personal support.

I’m not legally or morally in a position to say much more than that. They have classes in health education which cover the physical side of things more thoroughly. Beyond that I believe that any attempt on my part to give heavy sermons on sexual abstinence would not only be hypocritical at this point in my life, but also rather counter-productive. And any attempts to further shock or traumatize them regarding the process of abortion itself could justifiably get me fired. So I leave it at that, hoping that if any of the students are in dire need of someone to talk to about such matters I am one of the people that they can trust. Fortunately very few have turned to me in that capacity over the years.

As to the moral arguments concerning abortion itself –– the arguments I intentionally chose to lose some 30 years ago –– there is very little worth my repeating here. The essential question remains, at what point along the way from sexual release to fertilized human ovum to embryo to fetus to healthy newborn baby, does “the soul” –– a fully functional expression of individualized human life, worthy of our protection and respect due to its own inherent value –– come into play? There is no obvious biblical teaching to clarify this matter, nor is there any clear medical consensus on the subject that I am aware of. Thus more often than not it comes down to a set of emotionally held dogmas that cannot be logically proven to be wrong and thus they are held to be foundational truths.

Over the centuries science has narrowed down the debate somewhat. During the Old Testament period it was somewhat axiomatic to say that knowing what happens in the womb as the baby takes shape in there is just one of those things that, like weather patterns, is beyond human understanding (Eccl. 11:5). All that could be said for sure was that once a man shot his seed into the woman there was potential for something miraculous to start happening in there, which in the best (or worst) case could result in a baby. When along the way this thing inside the mother became “a living soul” remained controversial.  Some took Genesis 2:7 to mean that it was only in the process of actually breathing that a person becomes a living being. Some took Exodus 21:22-23 to mean that causing a miscarriage is the equivalent of manslaughter, and justifiably subject to brutal retribution, thereby indicating that the fetus is already a living being before it starts breathing at least.

The first “scientific” approach to the subject that the Church took seriously was that of Aristotle. St. Thomas Aquinas repeatedly quotes from Aristotle’s “On the Generation of Animals” in his Summa Theologica, accepting the basic idea that in distinguishing between “form” and “substance,” the baby’s form is determined by what the father shoots in, whereas the substance of the baby comes from what the mother contributes during the course of the pregnancy. As Aristotle put it, “While the body is from the female, it is the soul that is from the male, for the soul is the reality of a particular body.” This also provided a handy explanation for the Christological problem of how Jesus could be entirely divine and entirely human: his form/pattern/soul was perpetually being given by God, whereas his physical substance was contributed entirely by Mary. In fact it’s really rather difficult to make sense of the “eternally begotten” bit in the Nicene Creed outside of this paradigm.

But part of the implication of this teaching is that, as the Monty Python boys put it, “Every Sperm is Sacred.” The soul would already exist within the seed that the potential father ejaculates, and thus it is forbidden to masturbate, or practice oral sex, or (male) homosexual acts of any sort, or bestiality, or condom use, or even early withdraw; because all of these things would place the souls already present in the semen in someplace other than the sacred receptacle it was intended for.  From there it was up to God to decide which of these souls he would provide bodies for.

The scientific basis for this traditional moral perspective was actually debunked by a monk, Gregor Mendel, less than 150 years ago. The idea that we each get 23 chromosomes from our moms and 23 from our dads, and the unique combination of those determines our forms (which was actually discovered less than 100 years ago) definitively proved Aristotle’s theory of where the soul comes from to be wrong. But at that point in history the church was so busy fighting against the Darwinist perspective that it hardly noticed the far deeper heretical implications of this monk’s discoveries.  One can only imagine what Mendel would have had to endure had he tried to publish his findings 300 years earlier.

So the science of genetics has fundamentally changed the church’s understanding of where the pattern for individual humans comes from, but what it hasn’t done is provide a basis determining whether the sin of abortion is closer to the sin of masturbation or the sin of murder in terms of the old understanding.  If we think of the “soul” in the terms in which it is used to translate Aristotle’s ideas, it takes shape whenever there is a pattern established according to which a new human being could be formed. The medieval understanding was that these souls existed at the moment of ejaculation, and they were thus unanimous in the understanding that most of those patterns would never be realized, and it was sort of up to God which ones got all the way to breathing “the breath of life”. The guilt associated with preventing an actual human life from being realized based on that pattern was variable, depending on how close it actually got.

We now recognize that those patterns take shape at the moment of conception, and that in the long trip from potential human being to actual human being conception is a more monumental step along the way than the actual first breath, in that it is at the moment of conception (rather than ejaculation) when the pattern becomes fully formed, but it is unclear whether either marks the definitive transition point from potential to actual. A more realistic transition point would be the point at which pre-natal consciousness has taken shape, but even that is somewhat problematic, both in terms of diagnostics and in terms of establishing a philosophically consistent standard on the matter.

But what all of this comes back to is a question of what we mean when we talk about the intrinsic value of human life.  Are we saying that all humans are incredible treasures, and we should thus try to fill the world with as many of them as possible? Are we saying that intelligence as such is the highest value that evolution has produced, and the thing most worth saving and defending in the universe, in particular in the form in which it occurs within our own species (implying that the more intelligent one is, the more entitled one should be to survive)? Are we saying that there are certain things in terms of personal flourishing for each of us as humans that require contact with other humans, and we must thus consider (all of) them to be instrumentally important? Are we just saying that the moral tenants of empathy and reciprocity should be applicable first and foremost within our own species? Or are we saying that there is some other “spark of the divine” within every actual living, breathing human being that deserves to be protected purely on the basis of religious dogmas with no other explanation necessary?  All of these positions have their champions even today; all of them have their problems in terms of fully consistent application.

All that uncertainty being on the table, I still believe that every actual human life has its own value, which can’t be applied to lives that might have been under other circumstances. I believe that, if anything, our moral responsibility at this point in history is to limit the number of children we bring into the world, not to maximize our reproductive potential. So when it comes to miscarriages I believe that they are tragic events for those who experience them, but not an indication of sinfulness or moral failure. I don’t believe that married ladies in their 40s who allow themselves to get pregnant in spite of the high risk of miscarriage at their age are guilty of reckless manslaughter when such miscarriages happen. Thus I don’t believe that fetuses and babies actually belong in the same category with each other as moral objects. And on that basis I don’t believe that the suffering of fetuses being aborted, or the loss of those potential contributors to our societies, really belong in the same category with the tragedy of actual children dying every few seconds from malnutrition and preventable diseases. Thus to me abortion is not the political issue.

If it is the issue for you I would hope that you first seriously consider why it bothers you so much compared to other causes of human suffering or loss of life. If this is a “back door” way of trying to evangelize and proclaim to the world the values of your own religious convictions, I would suggest that you prayerfully reconsider the implications and effectiveness of such a strategy. If you are honestly afraid that God will cause earthquakes and tornados and other forms of judgment on nations that practice such sins, I would strongly suggest that praying for mercy is a better safeguard than trying to legislate the morality you believe God wants. If it is the genuine human suffering and tragedy that bothers you, for consistency sake I hope you would also fight against other forms of human tragedy that I have mentioned above, particularly contributing to aid for girls and young children in Africa and the Indian subcontinent (even if taxes on the wealthy must be raised in the process). But most importantly, while I fully respect your right to believe as you do, I hope you realize that someone can still be a good Christian and a good person while believing differently than you do on these matters.

And when it comes to the current election cycle, may God have mercy on us all and protect us from each other’s stupidity.


Filed under Death, Ethics, Human Rights, Politics, Priorities, Religion, Sexuality

Random Thoughts on God and Country

Let me see if I can do something I haven’t done in a long time: finish one of these essays in one sitting so that I have time tomorrow to go out and celebrate Valentine’s Day properly. For that purpose I’ll just open up the mental taps and let it flow. I’ve been thinking a bit about Valentine’s Day itself, about Whitney Houston’s death over the weekend, about the various problems of missionary identity and about the US innovation of keeping religion and politics separate. Let’s see what comes of such a stew here.

Valentine… now there’s a mysterious character. Who was he, where did he come from, and why did Chaucer apparently decide that he was one who’s celebration would help usher in the spring mating rights for Christians? I tried looking it up to tie together the snippets of legend I’d heard over the years and discovered that historians know less than I thought I knew about the subject. For starters Valentine was as common a name back in the third and fourth centuries of our calendar as David is today, and it seems that the pre-Constantinian Romans creatively dispatched a diaper-load of Valentines (as in men of that name). There are a few guesses as to which it would have been that later was considered worthy of mention of February 14th; the most common being that it was one of the two guys of that name who were buried north of Rome along the road to Rimini. A couple hundred years ago one of the popes had what were believed to be the bones of one of these guys dug up and given as a gift to a church in Dublin so that the Irish could experiment with their magical powers.

The strongest legend seems to be that “the” Valentine was an underground priest in Rome and the surrounding area during the reign of Emperor Claudius the Second, predecessor to Diocletian, who really got Christian-killing going in earnest. Whereas Diocletian found Christians politically useful as all-purpose enemies of the state to get everyone together in hating –– sort of like Hitler used Jews, like McCarthyites used Communists and like “Tea Partiers” use Muslims –– it seems that before his time the Caesars didn’t take Christians all that seriously. From the famous correspondence between Trajan and Pliny the Younger (on line at we can gather that Roman authorities thought of Christians sort of the way I think of Cape Town’s cockroaches: sort of gross in a mildly amusing sort of way, worth killing if they make a nuisance of themselves, but mostly harmless and not worth going on a big hunt for. So somehow this Valentine didn’t manage to stay below the radar and the emperor personally became aware of him and had him imprisoned. According to one part of the legend one of Valentine’s crimes was to secretly perform marriage ceremonies for young couples according to the Christian liturgical practice that was taking shape at the time. In any case, it is said that Claudius found this priest to be rather interesting and amusing, and might have kept him in a cage as part of a menagerie of strange specimens, but Valentine kept trying to convince the emperor himself to become a Christian and so finally Claudius just decided to have him killed.

None of the Valentines promised us a rose garden...

But legends of the story of Valentine are as diverse and as difficult to authenticate as the legends of the Flying Dutchman here on the east side of the Cape Peninsula. All of the stories tell of a ship captained by a cranky old Dutchman who for his sins is caught in a storm and cursed never to have a home on land ever again. Sightings of this legendary ghost ship then apparently continued throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, right up to the time of World War 2 even. Yet nobody seems to know for sure who the original Dutch seaman in question was, or what year his ship was lost, or even what exactly he did to bring the curse upon himself. The variety we find within such legends is part of what makes them interesting.

Getting back to Valentine though, whoever he was, I can’t imagine him being anything other than amused at the marketing of greeting cards and chocolates and flowers in his name more than 1700 years later. His primary concern would most likely have been one of Christians being allowed to have their own socially accepted rituals to worship together and start families without being hunted down for it. He was hoping for the state not to bother the church so much. That was not to come about for a very long time. As I said, the emperor after the one who had him killed made a big number out of hunting down Christians and making as dramatic a show as possible out of killing them. The emperor after that in turn flipped the whole system on its head and made Christianity the religion of power within the Roman Empire. Another 50 years after him came a fellow who said that to be a Roman you have to be a Christian, and no form of “pagan” education should be allowed in Rome any longer. This officially began what came to be known as the Dark Ages. A crass but not entirely inaccurate way of putting it would be that the teachings of Christianity were raped by the power structures of the empire, and as a result gave birth to the medieval Roman Catholic Church.

Fast forward 800 years: a new religion called Islam has arisen in the Middle East and north Africa, and they are claiming that God has given them the right to be in charge of the area where Christianity and Judaism first began. That sucks because doing pilgrimages down there is a big thing for some of the richer Christians. So eventually the Popes proclaim that God wants them to put together a Christian fighting force to regain dominance of Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Thus begins the farce known as the Crusades. But out of that experience Europeans come to discover some of the learning that had been happening on their continent before the Dark Ages, because the North African Muslims had hung onto quite a bit of it and even built further on it. Eventually this “new” knowledge convinced a guy named Thomas from a little Italian town called Aquino to convince the Catholic Church to let people start thinking more freely for themselves again, and to start universities teaching more than just church doctrines. From there it only took about 200 years before the church started to lose its controlling grip on European culture. This was known as the Renaissance.

After the Renaissance the Catholic Church progressively lost the vast majority of its political power. It remains true today that a third of the world’s population call themselves Christians, and over half of those call themselves Catholics, but within that group those who are afraid that the pope could cut off their access to the sacraments and send them all to hell if their rulers don’t behave themselves, or even who hold to the “every sperm is sacred” teaching, are a very small minority.

It really started with their failure to execute Luther like they had all of the previous dissenters. Soon after that there were two major European kings –– Henry in England and Gustav in Sweden –– who made excuses to “nationalize” there countries’ churches so as to be able to sell off church property to pay for the little wars of expansion that they had going at the time. And before you knew it, even the papal territories within Italy were being reduced to the size of a minor suburb. But all of these moves towards “secularization” didn’t take the final step that we might imagine Valentine would have wanted: allowing the church and state to operate entirely separately from each other. Within each country it was assumed that there would be a particular religious organization that would teach people that God wanted them to obey their rulers, and which would in turn receive the endorsement and support of the rulers as the “true church” for that country. The first country to definitively break with that principle was the United States.

It’s surprising how many people today still don’t understand the essence of this basic principle of what separation of church and state is supposed to mean in the US, and how freedom of religion has come to operate in places where there are still remains of the medieval ecclesiastical power structure still in place, such as Finland, or Turkey. In these countries where well over ¾ of the population identify themselves rather passively with one particular religious brand, and where that brand has had a hand in legitimizing governments for hundreds of years, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the government still takes what the clergy says seriously in terms of shaping state policy. Nor does it mean that those who believe differently from the mainstream religious structure are likely to meet Valentine’s fate. (In Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia they might, but those are separate problems unto themselves.) It basically means that official state church –– or whatever this majority supported religious organization chooses to call itself –– tries to hold onto whatever power it can by claiming to represent the spiritual conscience of the people. This is effectively the same as what most of the last round of Republican presidential candidates in the US have been claiming for themselves, and what Bush the younger was trying to implement by degrees in US law. This sort of movement hasn’t been seen in US history since former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan –– darling of the rural religious voters, and a Democrat from before the time when the major parties swapped roles (with FDR) –– humiliated himself at the Scopes trial. But ever since Ronald Reagan told evangelicals, “You cannot endorse me but I endorse you,” America’s religious right has been salivating over the possibility of ever greater government endorsement, regardless of what their beloved constitution has to say about the subject.

The opposite perspective is that which John Kennedy stated as a Catholic running for president: I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

This subject has come up again this past week because President Obama, in his on-going efforts to bring the US into the twenty-first century with regards to health care as a basic right for all citizens, has run into trouble with the Catholic Church; and the religious right, looking for any possible excuse to ridicule this president, has chosen to attack the requirements the president’s commission wants to put on Catholic organizations as employers. Basically it comes down to this: even if the church continues to teach that every sperm is sacred, every employer will still be required to provide medical coverage for its female employees that provides them with means of not making babies with those sacred sperm if they chose not to. The president’s struggle has been to provide that basic legal and medical protection for women without forcing Catholic organizations to actively commit spermicide. And for this the southern Baptist farm boys and their political allies are up in arms about the president going too far in telling churches what to do. Some have gone as far as to opine that the president is getting “all Henry VIII” on the churches. Go figure.

This debate also relates to whether a cultural outsider can ever be seen as having a legitimate role in attempting to shape a country’s values. I mean, I don’t think its coincidence that the same fringe elements who are complaining about Obama’s power struggles with Catholic employers are the ones who were working long and hard to cast doubt on his status as a native born American. Is there a difference between “indigenous ideas” and “invasive species of thought”? Should each country or culture have its own “natural” values and spiritual identity, protected from foreign influences that would corrupt the natural balance of things? This is an underlying assumption of many conservatives: that they need to protect the ideas they have grown used to from too much outside influence. At the same time they want to provide missionary aid of various sorts to other cultures, to enable those others to reach their own superior level of spirituality. Nor is this approach by any means limited to just particular types of Christians. This is why “missionary” has become a curse word in so many places. So if someone wants to come in from a different culture to spread new ideas that they believe could help in the new context, fierce opposition is more the rule than the exception, whether or not there is an official state church system to deal with. There are always those with a vested interest in only letting “insiders” spread values within their territory. Yet on the other side of the coin we have Jesus’ astute observation that no prophet finds domestic acceptance either. Maybe the point is just to prevent anyone from trying to change anything…

So then what does all of this have to do with Whitney Houston? Admittedly not much, other than the fact that she happened to die at a time when all of this was up in the air (between my ears). But Whitney, like her godmother Aretha Franklin, had a rare and powerful voice that could bring chills to anyone, regardless of their normal taste in music. Yet still there are those who can’t appreciate the tragedy of losing such an immense talent without looking for torrid details to judge her by. It’s as though they need a handy moral excuse to shield themselves from the tragedy that we inevitably face in life at times. Is that part and parcel of the system of trying to maintain control over what is particularly valued, and over how our values work? I don’t know. Probably a bit of a stretch. In any case I am saddened to see the loss of such beauty in the world this month. I hope her soul is at peace. I hope the same for all of the other fascinating celebrities who have died over the past year with questions of self-destructive behavior hanging over their heads, from Amy Winehouse to Christopher Hitchens, but I especially hope this for Whitney. I hope that somehow what she has left the world with gives more people the courage to open up their hearts and dare to love, regardless of its inherent dangers.

So now, in spite of all of these troubled and skeptical ideas running through my mind, I’m off to get myself ready to spend tomorrow (and the rest of the week) chasing after the rainbow of romance in a way that lives up to the abstract expectations for the holiday. I leave it to the reader to sift through these musings and see if you find any points that help you to better consider your own social adjustments and deeper values. But regardless of whether you found anything above to agree with or not, remember and believe this: hugs make you healthier, so whatever else you do this Valentine’s week remember to go out and get yourself some extra hugs. So what are you waiting for? Get up and go hug somebody!





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Filed under Death, Love, Politics, Religion, Risk taking, Social identity

Death of a Despised Individual

While I was traveling last week an important piece of history took place: the US military finally hunted down and killed Osama Bin Laden. Many people have been asking what I think about the subject, so after some delays here, I’ve taken the time to explore my thoughts with and for your all.

To start with there’s the whole timing conspiracy question. Was there a reason why he was killed now rather than sooner or later? Is his death a means of promoting certain political or business careers? Why wait until now? Or why not take him prisoner and kill him later if necessary? In my opinion such questions don’t merit particularly extensive investigation. Not quite 10 years after his most infamous act was not a particularly auspicious time for Bin Laden to be gunned down. Both Bush II and Obama could have used the political boost of the death of this infamous enemy to much better advantage if it had happened earlier. While this can’t hurt the US Democrats’ standing with the wavering, moderate voters, with whom Obama spent all of his political capital in trying to make health care a basic human right in the US (as it has been for decades in every other “developed” country), it by no means guarantees their success in the next election cycle. So as far as American political interests are concerned it is unrealistic to assume that there is more to this than what can be seen on the surface: Bin Laden was wanted dead or alive, preferably dead, due to the fact that he very publicly worked to bring about the deaths of thousands of otherwise innocent Americans; and the American military took care of that as soon as they could.

It could be said that the biggest delay in carrying out this assassination stemmed from variable levels of cooperation with the Pakistanis. Here I am not an expert, but I can point to a few of the well known dots that might be worth connecting. The extremely medieval form of Islam practiced in Bin Laden’s native Saudi Arabia can obviously still work in such an  oil rich country, where reform and progress towards social justice can be stifled by a strong-armed and well resourced military machine, together with some strategic distribution of the oil wealth among those who are friends of the status quo. If a country doesn’t have that kind of money, an alternative way of holding the ancient status quo together is by using it as a defense against some particularly horrible “other”. Pakistan has tried both approaches, and neither is looking particularly sustainable at this point. Given Pakistan’s problems with internal political strife, flood damage that may never be repaired, growing resistance to traditions of brutally oppressing women, and cultural optimism following an international cricket championship final against India (which remained extremely friendly even though they lost), maybe––just maybe––the Pakistani military bosses finally decided that siding with this rabble rouser who specialized in inciting hatred based on medieval thinking was no longer in their best interest. That in turn allowed for significant wheels of military intelligence finally being set into motion.

But political causes and effects aside, one of the big questions remains: was it right to kill this fellow? How freely can we justify the taking of a human life –– any human life, regardless of how despicable we find the person? In Star Wars’ terminology, when we act to take a life, or lives, out of hatred and disgust at what a person symbolizes to us, do we effectively surrender ourselves to “the power of the dark side” in the process?

There are actually two relevant ethical issues involved in this matter: What makes a human life particularly valuable to begin with? And then, how dangerous are motivations of de-humanizing hatred and resentment?

Those few who genuinely deeply object to Bin Laden being assassinated do so on the basis of assassination always being wrong, as an absolute moral principle, with no exceptions. For these purposes let’s define assassination as the targeted killing of a particular individual because of the risks that person poses to a particular government or other organization. So some particularly well known assassinations of the modern era would include Abraham Lincoln, Duke Franz Ferdinand, Leon Trotsky, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Stephen Biko, Anna Politkovskaya and Benazir Bhutto. In each of these cases, despite their personal detractors and posthumous opponents, they have achieved as certain martyr-like status, and those who caused their deaths have been roundly condemned. On the other hand though, we have cases like Ceauşescu in Romania, where assassinating the fallen dictator as they did could have easily been the best thing for the country in terms of saving other lives. Or in fiction we have the rather sympathetic scene in “The Godfather” where Michael assassinates the crooked cop and his handler in the diner… for the good of the family and community, as he saw it. In neither case could those assassinated be considered any sort of martyrs. Could those have been taken as morally justifiable assassinations? What if some intelligence service or military unit were to eliminate the Gaddafi element of the Libyan people’s suffering? What if thousands of Zimbabwean lives could be saved by ridding that country of Mugabe’s autocratic rule? Would saving thousands of lives, and the freeing of millions from lives of terror, justify the assassination of such self-important individuals?

To some there is a significant moral line between assassination and capital punishment following a fair and public trial. Does due process make governmentally sanctioned killing more moral? In some ways it’s hard to see how. Reducing the risk of killing someone who doesn’t deserve to be killed is a noble idea in one sense, but in cases such as Bin Laden’s there can hardly be any reasonable doubt regarding whether or not he committed the actions for which the US and Pakistan determined that he deserved to die. But those who are prone to believe in absolute moral principles might say that you still need a trial just as a matter of principle. They too are entitled to their view.

The more commonly held view, however, is that government sponsored killing is just as morally wrong as privately committed murder. This view holds that the problem is not, as Hobbes taught, just a matter of keeping violence under control by only allowing it to be exercised as a matter of public agreement. The heart of the matter is that there is something absolutely sacred about human life, which makes it something never to be taken by another human under any circumstances. That, however, is highly problematic in at least two senses: First of all it doesn’t really have any logical basis for being so; and secondly, it’s more or less impossible to consistently apply.

The closest thing we have to a basis for believing that human life must never be taken away is the religious tradition of which the 10 Commandments is an integral part: “Thou shalt not kill.” It almost goes without saying, however, that originally, in practice, this was only intended to prohibit private murder within one’s own society, and even there religious justifications provided plenty of exceptions. Religion itself has been a major excuse for killing over the years, and so taking religion as an absolute basis for not killing is hardly morally consistent.

Religion in general, and the Abrahamic tradition in particular, holds that life is a precious gift from God, but it is inherently temporary, and to realize its full value it has to be related to something beyond itself –– something more eternal. Respect for human life is vitally important in this tradition, but its protection and prolonging is far less an end unto itself than a means of realizing something more than long life for its own sake. Sometimes that value relates to particular lives necessarily coming to an end against our hopes and sooner than expected.

But more than killing, one factor which would seem to be an even bigger corruption of the human spirit, and our societies, is to base them on hatred of others. This has always been there, in spite of the best attempts of the best of religious leaders to help people overcome it. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is quoted as saying, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,[a] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22).  In other words, in his teaching, hatred is just as serious a moral problem as murder itself. Of course enemies and detractors will always exist in our lives, but basing our lives on shared hatred of those we label as evil is a nasty way to live; basing our lives on cycles of revenge, so much the worse.

There’s a standard joke nowadays about using Hitler or the Nazis in an argument: it always constitutes one variation or another on “Godwin’s Law”. Nazis have become such a cliché, based on their use as a scare tactic against any form of “socialist” by such lesser minds as Glen Beck, that any moral lesson from recent history is in danger of being lost. In using the word “Nazi” as a hate-mongering tool, today’s rabid American radio personalities are, perhaps intentionally, losing track of the fact that the ultimate evil of the Third Reich was hate-mongering. We do not condemn Hitler for making the trains run on time or providing state sponsored health care. We condemn him for fueling that sort of efficiency with resentment towards “inferior tribes” that he convinced people needed to be exterminated. Why is that so hard to understand?

In our generation there are plenty of hate-mongers to go around still. There are ultra-nationalists versus anti-nationalists, and violent religious extremists against both their counterparts of other religious persuasions and violent anti-religious extremists. To one extent or another it will become inevitable to meet this violence with violence. The trick is to do so without making hatred the central factor of our existence.

Overall though, in the time delay since I started trying to formulate these thoughts, I can’t really complain about the way things have played out. In the week and a half since Bin Laden was killed, the world has not become a significantly more peaceful nor a more violent place. The US seems to be more worried this week about the question of whether or not rich people should pay taxes so that poor people don’t have to die for lack of medical care than about how to combat the next wave of Muslim extremists. And while that alternative problem as its own strange absurdity to it, it’s a far cry healthier for them to be debating about that than to be holding debates to snowball the hatemongering. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, autocrats are grasping at straws, saying that if they don’t stay in power some horrible extremists will take over their countries, but no one is buying it.

Struggles continue, but neither celebrations of nor mourning over the death of this high profile religious hate-monger has captured this last week’s headlines. And flying by way of Istanbul last week, sitting in the airport next to the door to the Muslim prayer room while waiting for a connecting flight, the biggest commotion was the yelling competition between the cashiers at Burger King and Popeye’s and the Turkish ice cream vendor to get potential customers’ attention. Wonderful how smoothly this little spike in hatred came and went!

So may peace and security be with each of you as well.


Filed under Death, Ethics, Politics, Religion