Category Archives: Pop culture

Uncle Ben and Other Myths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Epistemology, Politics, Pop culture, Religion

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

The Cosby Contradiction

Like many people, I’ve been in turns surprised, disturbed and fascinated by the recent scandals and career collapse of Bill Cosby. In a strange way, however, I sadly have to admit, it provides me with a certain sense of closure. Let me work through this one here.

Bill Cosby - Best Of Bill Cosby (3)I first discovered Cosby when I was somewhere around 12 years old, with his classic comedy recordings like “Noah” and “Chicken Heart”. His stuff was both racially identified and completely white bread at the same time, which is part of what I could appreciate about it already in my pre-puberty stage. He spoke of the sort of trouble that poor kids can get themselves into in the process of enjoying life in risky ways: improvised rules for back alley sports, homemade toys made out of stolen and scrap materials, cruel practical jokes backfiring, and humor as a defense against the trauma of living with a violence prone alcoholic father. The thing that made it all funny was the extent to which it endeared all of the eccentric yet familiar characters to us, ranging from Fat Albert to Weird Harold, giving a certain dignity to all of them and without moralizing against any of them. His agenda seemed to be to defend kids against all of the threats that adults brought into their lives, ranging from jungle gyms to lumpy oatmeal, while at the same time working out survival strategies that a kid from a disadvantaged family could get by with.

bill-cosby-2Much later I discovered the aspect of his career which was in some ways in complete contrast and perhaps even contradiction with this funky Philly home-boy image: his ground-breaking acting role for a black man in the 1960s as the sophisticated sidekick for a would-be American James Bond in “I Spy”. Watching these reruns years after the fact, I was impressed less by the quality of the drama than just the cultural landmark they represented. Cosby played with distinction a role originally written for a white man. This became another aspect of his identity that made for an uneasy mix with the Fat Albert stuff: sometimes he was letting the disadvantages that came with his racial background hang out for all to see, offering dignity to those who shared those handicaps; other times he was playing the role of an urbane sophisticate, trying to send out a message that race really didn’t matter.

motherjugsspeedIn hindsight one of the most telling moments in his acting career, in terms of a role that defined Cosby culturally, would be his lead in the ambulance comedy, Mother, Jugs and Speed. This film was all about letting prejudices hang out to be ridiculed. It explored the ways in which Cosby’s character, “Mother,” the sole black man working for a sleazy white-owned ambulance company, related first of all to the sexy receptionist (Raquel Welsh) whom he alone could get away with calling “Jugs” while leering at her ample cleavage. Enter “Speed”: Harvey Keitel’s character of a Viet Nam vet coming into the company offering radical competitive intensity and questionable reliability. Throw in a cut-throat competition for a municipal contract between their company, “F&B”, and the completely black-owned-and-run “Unity” ambulance corporation.

Besides being the black man working to promote “white interests” in exchange for certain extra privileges within the company, Mother is also a bit of a sexual pervert and general mischief maker with a bit of a violent streak to boot. Mother has a habit of stopping off at erotic massage parlors while he is supposed to be on call, and for personal amusement he likes to try to use his custom ambulance to run down nuns on crosswalks. When the particularly distasteful character played by Larry Hagman makes a crude comment about Mother’s partner who gets killed in the line of duty, Mother calmly beats him into a condition where he has to be hospitalized. Then in the end, when the white-run “F&B” ambulance service is combined with the black-run “Unity” service (to operate under the new name “F&U”), Mother insists on keeping Jugs as his partner rather than accepting any of his new black colleagues’ requests for him to ride with them.Scratch the surface a little bit and all of this starts to look like nothing more than a complex analogy for Cosby’s own life.

Meanwhile Cosby was making most of his living in the seventies as an ad man: hocking poorly made cars and heavy doses of sugar for children in order to secure a relatively comfortable life for himself and his family. The only problem anyone seemed to have with this at the time was that Cosby was representing so many brands at the same time that when you saw his face pop up on TV you could never be sure what he’d try to sell you this time –– Ford Pintos or Jello pudding-pops or Del Monte peaches or whatever.

o-THE-COSBY-SHOW-GUYS-WITH-KIDS-facebookIn the mid-Reagan era Cosby finally found what he hoped would be his definitive role as “Dr. Huxtable” on The Cosby Show: the patriarch of the ultimate successful white-collar black family for whom race didn’t matter any more. The father was a doctor, the mother was a lawyer, and their kids never suffered for lack of attention from either parent due to the demands of their careers. The message was in many respects classic Reagan: Forget about historic injustices and all that. Anyone can succeed if they work hard enough. Society should be structured in a way that those who work their way to the top are fully allowed to enjoy what they’ve earned once they get there, and if some people suffer because they haven’t worked as hard as they should, that’s their problem.

As Cosby has aged this conflict between the different aspects of his public persona–– between being Weird Harold’s best friend and being CIA agent Alexander Scott; between being Mother and Dr. Huxtable –– has intensified. As much as we want to love the endearing qualities of both, Cosby has increasingly shown the most objectionable aspects of both sides of himself. He has responded to the heartbreaks and disappointments that fatherhood has brought his way by implying that his major failure as a parent has been not being tough enough with them… more like what his parents, and the army, were like with him. He has referred to black people who he sees as lacking ambition as “no-groes” and while he holds records in terms of the most money donated to African-American educational causes, he has been increasingly defensive about insinuations regarding other ways in which he could be using his nine-figure net worth to help improve the lives of black kids today who have even fewer opportunities than he had growing up.

Bill CosbyCosby’s conspicuous aging process over the past couple decades has been disturbing to watch. In the nineties he was able to joke about his progressively failing health and the depressing diet restrictions his doctor put him on. He said then that he couldn’t wait to get to be his mother’s age, because her doctor told her that at that point she could eat anything she might want and it wouldn’t really make so much difference any more. Now he seems to have arrived at that age, and he is all the more cranky for it. He is conspicuously blind in one eye and his public appearances have mostly featured him sitting unshaven in front of a camera, looking as though walking across the room to get there was probably a painful exercise for him that he didn’t really want anyone to see.

The best information I’ve been able to come across says that he was born in July of 1937, putting him in his late seventies. So it seems that the rant published in his name last year, “I’m 83 and tired”, loses track of a lot of things about his early life:

I’m tired of being told that I have to “spread the wealth” to people who don’t have my work ethic.

I’m tired of being told the government will take the money I earned, by force if necessary, and give it to people too lazy to earn it.

Then after ranting on against Muslims, carbon emission restrictions, drug addicts, celebrity no-fault public apologies (!) and people with a sense of entitlement, he goes on to say,

I’m really tired of people who don’t take responsibility for their lives and actions. I’m tired of hearing them blame the government, or discrimination or big-whatever for their problems.

I’m also tired and fed up with seeing young men and women in their teens and early 20′s be-deck themselves in tattoos and face studs, thereby making themselves unemployable and claiming money from the Government.

Yes, I’m damn tired. But I’m also glad to be 83. Because, mostly, I’m not going to have to see the world these people are making. I’m just sorry for my granddaughter and their children. Thank God I’m on the way out and not on the way in.

Two questions come to mind when reading this diatribe:
1) Has his mind really deteriorated so far that he would write something like this for himself (including the 8-year discrepancy in his age), or has some Tea Partier anxious to spread anti-Obama ideas attributable to black celebrities written this apocryphally? (ed: This strongly appears to be the case!)
2 Is it possible for a black man to definitively be a douchebag after all?

With all of this in the background then, the recent allegations that for most of his career Cosby has been a womanizer and serial rapist –– but only now, for some strange reason (reportedly having to do with a little known comedian’s accusation against him as part of a stand-up routine) are people starting to take the evidence in this regard seriously –– takes on a whole new light. A tea party conspiracy theorist might claim that it is because Cosby has dared to speak out against “the abuses of big government” that the liberal media is working overtime to shut him down, but that doesn’t really ring true. More to the point, as the elder comic has become more and more aggressive in his absurd right wing rambling as his mind has deteriorated, the threshold for pointing out his personal moral failures has been lowered significantly. People have been forced by Cosby himself to recognize that as a person he isn’t so much like Dr. Huxtable, making it far less difficult for his accusers to point out how much, as a person, he resembles the character of “Mother”.

mother-568x244So with all this in mind how do I now relate to Cosby and his life’s work? Obviously it’s complicated. The most obvious thing for me, however, is to say that his most valuable work, throughout his career, has been when he has stayed in touch with his inner little mischievous poor black kid from Philadelphia. The stories he told about that era of his life are the reason he became famous to begin with, and his ability to slip back into that role at will was key to the most valuable moments of his acting, advertising and stand-up careers thereafter. When he lost touch with that inner black child at times by trying to be the respected operator in the white-skinned world for whom his skin color didn’t make any difference any more, he lost touch with what is most valuable about himself as an artist.

Obviously this is not to say that as a black man he should just “stay in his proper place”! By breaking down barriers in playing the I Spy sidekick, Cosby did indeed play a valuable role in improving race relations in the United States. The sad part is the extent to which his sense of self seems to have got confused in the process. Becoming both a serial rapist and a quasi-teabagger are quite likely symptoms of that loss of a secure sense of value in terms of who he is and where he comes from.

The hard part here is applying this back to my own life. How do I go about remaining in touch with my own formative childhood experiences that made me who I am, which took place in a cultural environment very different from that in which I have been living for the past 25 years or so? How much do I need to make a point of sympathizing with those who are perhaps stuck in a place that I like to think I have outgrown? What measures must I take in order to ensure that I remain honest with myself in terms of staying in touch with what authentically makes me me? The easy part is judging Cosby for his lost personal integrity; the hard part is figuring out how to learn from his mistakes.

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Filed under Politics, Pop culture, Racism

Stevie’s Summertime Spirituality

Somewhat in contrast with my recent Kenya experiences –– but yet in a way in complete harmony with them –– this past week I allowed myself what for me is a major luxury expenditure; but one I can also write off as an important investment in my relationship with my younger son: I bought tickets for he and I to go to a concert by one of the great music icons of my generation: Stevie Wonder. Some would say it just goes with my ethnically Dutch heritage that I felt a certain pain in paying as much as I did for these tickets… just to be allowed to stand out under the afternoon sun on a dusty gravel sporting grounds, crowded together with a sweaty mob of mostly drunk people, to listen to music I’d actually heard hundreds of times before… but I still believe it was a necessary expenditure, and in the end well worth it.

029While I was off on my most recent African adventure I had missed my son’s birthday, as well as the celebration after he completed his required military service, so I felt I owed it to him to do something particularly special together this week. But in all honesty once again the present that I bought for him (like so many of his birthday toys from previous years) was something I probably bought at least as much for my enjoyment than for his. As a strongly professing fan of Motown music in general, and Stevie Wonder tunes in particular, I couldn’t really pass up the opportunity to witness his performance live. OK, so the promoter’s arrangements left something to be desired. It was still an experience that will rank among the most important lifetime memories I will share with my son. It was also a rather spiritual experience for me.

I actually got confused as to which Helsinki park the concert was in, somehow convincing myself that it would be in the grassier and shadier of the two where concerts are regularly held. With the more idyllic venue in mind I packed a small picnic for us and tossed that into a bag together with my digital camera of course, only to face significant disappointment when we arrived at the actual gate of the venue.  As I said, the concert site was actually a city sandlot on which kids’ soccer and baseball tournaments are held fairly regularly. There was no place to comfortably spread the picnic blanket and they had a policy of not allowing in any full sized cameras. (Hundreds of people were shooting video with their cell phones with seemingly nothing the promoters could do about it, but that was beside the point: Cameras like mine were not permitted.) So I was told I’d have to leave my belongings at the baggage check point they had set up outside the gate.

This gave rise to another minor problem in that I didn’t bring any cash with me to pay the fee for such an additional service, but in the end that problem was rather pleasantly worked out. As the first opening act took the stage my son and I just sat down on a grassy knoll just outside the concert venue and enjoyed our little picnic together. It was just as the second act was coming on that I went to check my bag. It was a slow moment for those working at the baggage check area and so when I explained my dilemma to one of the attendants there, Hannu, had a bit of spare time to negotiate with me. In the end he was willing to take 10 minutes of interesting conversation as “payment in kind” for keeping an eye on my bag for the rest of the show. He had noticed that I was carrying the printout of my on-line concert ticket tucked into a small paperback history of Kenya, and he was interested in hearing the whole background story about my trip, and how I also considered Stevie to be a positive role model in promoting justice and compassion for the poor of Africa.

021Hannu was further interested in hearing about my work as a religious education teacher and why I consider such work to also be important, but we didn’t explore that avenue of conversation too far. After the fact I had somewhat of a feeling that perhaps I should have. Many of my evangelical friends might fault me for missing a golden opportunity to steer the conversation around in the sort of way that I could have “led him to the lord”. Instead I merely answered his question about why such lessons are important by saying that it is important for children in this country to have a functional understanding of what different sorts of people believe in religious terms, and how all that relates to their own (official, nominal) beliefs and let it go at that. He proceeded to tell me how cool it had been a few hours earlier to listen to Stevie and his band play “Yesterday” and some other Beatles cover material in their sound check, and to talk about his own perspectives on the value of intercultural experiences.

That level of conversation actually gelled better with the rest of my summer’s spiritual experiences thus far –– including the Kenya trip as a whole, the background factors that led to me taking such a trip, and the significance of Stevie Wonder’s life and music for me as a person in relation to that context –– than an attempt at “personal evangelism” would have. That subject in turn is actually worth meditating on a bit here, so let me take some time to explain (to you and to myself) what I mean by that.

It was actually by way of former student of mine, Sandhja, who also happens to be an exceptionally talented singer and performer, that I first met the people from Bondoaid, whose work in Kenya I’ve taken the active interest in. The core group of active members in this organization are evangelical Christians of one stripe or another –– ranging from the Pentecostal to the more radical Baptist to the mainstream denominational Protestant branches of that spectrum. Sandhja is none of the above. Having been her religious education instructor throughout her teenage years I know something about her personal religious perspectives and how pressure to adjust them might feel to her.

047I know her to be highly sensitive in the most beautiful sense, and deeply interested in the sort of spirituality that goes with caring for others on many different levels; but prone to see that spirituality in part through the lens of her mother’s Hindu background and in part through a general secular humanist perspective. She was willing to give of her time and money to help Kenyan orphans, not because she saw it as a means of bringing them into some particular faith, but because she is genuinely prone to caring for others wants to help reduce human suffering when it is in her power to do so. That’s just the sort of person she is, and over the years she has consistently impressed me with her emotional depth in such matters. It was part of my job to make sure she understands the most basic concepts of what it means to be a Christian, and how that compares with other spiritual paths, including her own. It was never part of my job to try to convert her to my own way of thinking on such matters though, nor was it ever my inclination to try to do so. As I see it her life provides a closer reflection of the teachings of Jesus than most professing Christians that I know, so I’m not about to condemn her to hell for putting the wrong label on it.

But it’s not my job to decide her eternal destiny anyway. It’s ultimately up to a source of justice way beyond what I can access or administer to do the final evaluation Sandhja’s life. So when it comes to that call, I’m happy to treat it the same as I did the predictions I was asked for regard World Cup Soccer this summer: Here’s how it looks to me, but it’s beyond my expertise to say anything for sure in advance, so I’m ready just to step aside and watch and see what happens. Meanwhile I have my own job to do –– what I believe God requires of me as a believer –– which is to “pay forward” the blessings I’ve received, in particular towards the poor, the outcasts, the prisoners and other disadvantaged people.

I happened to bump into Sandhja last week at a beachfront coffee shop, and we ended up sitting together for a bit discussing my trip, the Kenya project in general and the values behind it. She basically said that in her experience the evangelical Christians she had been working with on the project are truly warm and wonderful people, but there has been a continuous underlying tension over their expectations that at some point she would also become a “born-again Christian”. I could relate to what she was talking about not only from knowing the “born-again mind” intimately from the inside, but also from the similarities between what she was talking about and my experiences among the Cape Malay Muslims of South Africa during the year I spent there. Those folks too were generally very warm and hospitable, and accepting of my religious and cultural difference as a matter of respect for the most part; but not far below the surface was something between a hope and an expectation that someday, if I was honest enough and “my heart was open enough,” I would let go of my preconceptions about my own heritage and religiously become one of them. That wasn’t about to happen though, and from where I sat it wasn’t a matter of my having an insufficiently open heart or mind.

So Sandhja’s awkward situation was more than familiar to me. I couldn’t really apologize for the others’ expectations, but I could well appreciate the difficulties involved for her. I know how deeply ingrained the urge to win converts is in such circles, and how, for them, pursuing the objective of converting as many others as possible is considered to be the most virtuous behavior any person can possibly take part in. I know how thoroughly many have convinced themselves that the best way for them to truly love others is to coerce conversions and extract confessions of faith out of them by any means possible. I also know how –– even if one accepts such a premise regarding “the need to evangelize” –– the most sincere efforts to reach out to help others (both materially and spiritually) can easily morph into systems by means of which to gain and maintain abusive control over those being “helped”.  I have seen many times how there is actually no form of religion –– or secular ideology for that matter –– which is completely immune to being corrupted by the thrill of having power over the beliefs of others, and that when it comes right down to it Evangelical Christians are probably the worst by this disease (with Muslims coming in a close second). So I’m pretty sure that those with a powerful urge to “lead this girl to the Lord” were quite blind to their own motivations in wanting to do so. So in the end Sandhja and I agreed that it’s not always easy but we do what we can to overlook other people’s cultural blind spots in the process of attempting to do good together with them.

And that brings me back to the Stevie Wonder show. When it was finally his turn Stevie came out onto stage to the tune of one of the few songs in the set which were not of his own composition: “How Sweet It Is (To be Loved by You)”. This provided a glorious opportunity for an audience sing-along right from the start, and Stevie was continuously working us throughout the show to try to turn us into a sweeter sounding choir –– including drilling us on the harmony parts to be sung. But more to the point, after the third chorus and some harmony suggestions on this number, Stevie offered a bit of explanation for its choice as the opener: for him it also contains an element of prayer. He’s not on the road this time promoting a new album or anything like that; he’s just out thankfully enjoying the experience of doing the work he loves and feeling the love of the international audiences in the process. And as part and parcel of that motivation he wanted to publicly thank God for the opportunities he has had in life and career, and to encourage others to join him in appreciating God’s great love.

helsinkiclassic2014-11The appreciation for this perspective seemed to be somewhat limited among those in the highly secularized and fairly drunk Finnish audience, but Stevie didn’t let that discourage him. He qualified it right away by saying that he wasn’t promoting any particular religion. Like Pope Francis, Stevie is perfectly fine with people of good will being of other religions, or even being atheists. But still he wanted to stress the message that there is something greater than all of us to which we owe a certain awe, respect and thankfulness, and on the basis of which we need to learn to love each other. From there this implicit prayer of thanksgiving was a running theme throughout the rest of the show.

The one classic song of his included in the show that seemed to least harmonize with this principle of respect for the divine and loving each other on that basis, was “Part-Time Lover,” a tale of appreciation for a forbidden and conflict-laden relationship. His way of setting up that number with the audience had its own interesting humor to it. He asked the audience, “How many of you are in love?” A moderate number of hands showed murmured positive responses arose. “How many of you are in love with just one person?” Some giggles, but otherwise pretty close to the same level of response as for the previous question. “OK, now be honest: How many of you guys would really like to be in love with more than one lady?” While the audience was still chewing on that one the band started playing the intro. After the first verse then Stevie gave the audience their harmony parts for the song: guys scatting “bum, bum, badada-bum…” and women singing, “no, no, no, no, no…” Overall Stevie gave the impression that the experience this song talks about were as distant from his personal experiences as the unspoken eye-contact of unrequited love that he sings about in “My Cherie Amour”.

When it came to a song being intensely personal for him and intimately tied to his own life experience, on the other hand, the high water mark came with “Isn’t She Lovely,” which he wrote for his newborn daughter back in the seventies. She has since made a grandfather out of him and she was on the road with him as one of his backup singers –– the tall one on the far right. Savoring, appreciating and thanking God for that sort of love is where Stevie was clearly most in his element.

After that the next priority in his message to the audience was to pray and work together to eliminate the sort of suffering and social injustice described in the most pessimistic song in the set: “Living for the City”. How much more specific than that does the “gospel” message need to be in a pop concert? How much more specific than that can it be without the added detail getting in the way of the core message of peace and love?

If I were to analyze Stevie’s perspective on organized religion further I would have to turn to a song not included in his recent concerts, from his 1985 “In Square Circle” album: “Spiritual Walkers”. It is a somewhat cryptic musical comment on evangelical practices in general, and perhaps on Stevie’s fellow Motown veteran Michael Jackson’s propensity at the time to keep promoting his Jehovah’s Witnesses’ belief:

They knock on your door
You laugh in their face…
Walking places they should not be
But they will walk their lives
With a never ending light
They will walk their lives
’til they shine the light
Of truth into your life…
You run from their sight
Not to hear the holy word…
They have no defense
Except inner sense
And knowing the Almighty Friend

Stevie doesn’t actually come out for or against such people; he merely respectfully reports on what he “sees” and rhetorically asks others what they think.

In terms of his own core message though, Stevie remains focused on things that should be central concerns to people of faith, but which too many conspicuously religious folks remain silent about: fighting against such tragic injustices as racism, extreme poverty, various forms of segregation, handgun violence and “stand your ground laws”. Promoting particular religious dogmas just isn’t his thing. Nor is lecturing on ethics for that matter. He didn’t come to Helsinki to preach morality; he came to help people to feel good by getting them to sing along and share the love. If anyone else is interested in spreading the love in the same sorts of ways Stevie seems perfectly happy to have them on his side, regardless of their religious perspectives.

The only way I can remotely compare myself with Stevie is in saying that he and I are very much on the same page when it comes to understanding that the basic point of religion, when it’s done right, is building a genuine capacity for love and caring about others. As I said, he and I are on the same page with that one, though Stevie’s been reading from that page a lot longer than I have. I don’t have his same creative genius as a means of sharing that message with others, so I have to rely on being able to get just a bit closer to those in serious need than he can. At the same time I need to follow his example in limiting myself a bit in picking the causes I fight for carefully and sticking with the ones I choose.

No, I don’t think that religion can or should be reduced to nothing more than neutral “warm and fuzzy feelings” between “people of good will.” There really has to be something bigger “out there” to hold the whole system together for any religious teaching to have distinct value as such. My point here isn’t to redefine or defend my beliefs in ways that disregard the transcendent. My point –– and Stevie Wonder’s point as well, I believe –– is that what God has called each of us to do is to express the sort of love and mercy that he has given to each of us in turn to each other; not to bring everyone under the control of our favored style of religious system or to attempt to become the instruments of God’s vengeance and judgment upon the earth, the way so many religious folks seem to be longing to try their hand at. If we can remember what our basic task before God is in this regard, and if we can stick to working on that task rather than letting ourselves get distracted with religious power struggles, that is how I believe we can really bring the greatest glory and honor to God –– far more than by amassing huge numbers of new members or suitably preparing ourselves for an extended siege leading up to the battle of Armageddon.

Daring to care for others is the truest expression of true faith. Thus I would far rather work together with those with whom I have major philosophical and theological disagreements in the process of caring for those whom I believe God has instructed us to care for than to casually sit and endlessly discuss theories of the Second Coming with those who happen to theoretically agree with me on the mechanics of the redemption available in Christ. Furthermore, I honestly believe that those who genuinely care for others who are made in God’s image will stand in better stead before divine judgment than those who expect to pass through on the basis of having said the right evangelical magic words and participated in the proper rituals. But again, speculating over who God will judge how harshly, and on what basis, is really not our job as believers.

So regardless of how similar to or different from my own Stevie’s and Sandhja’s spiritual perspectives happen to be, I draw strength from the aesthetic satisfaction I get from their performances and I join together with them in doing what all believers properly should be doing: spreading the love, increasing the peace and treating the world around us (and all the people I share it with) with respect. Feel free to join us if in that effort if you’re so inclined.

 

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Filed under Aesthetics, Empathy, Ethics, Love, Pop culture, Purpose, Racism, Religion, Spirituality

Hagiographies

Two dead men have been in the news this week, though neither on the front pages. Both have been portrayed rather broadly as heroes, though for very separate causes. Both have been the subject of Hollywood films of limited historical accuracy, made mostly to energize the believers in their causes. Both have been subject to critique from the opposite side of the ideological spectrum. Both deserve the deepest of respect for confronting injustices in the sixties, achieving unexpected global celebrity for their causes in the seventies and winning decisive victories in their fields in the eighties. Both also deserve to be critiqued for their human failures, however, in ways that may make them less useful as icons for their causes.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m referring to Karol Wojtyla and Rubin Carter, better known respectively as Pope John Paul II and The Hurricane. The Hurricane died this last Sunday, just shy of 77 years old –– a respectable level of seniority for a man whose fame was based on his reputation for violence of all sorts. Pope John Paul II died 9 years ago, just shy of 85 –– also a respectable level of seniority for a man who had stood up in opposition to both Nazis and Communist totalitarians, and then took an assassin’s bullet to the chest in later life and lived to tell about it. The final official touches on his sainthood are taking place on Sunday, April 27.

Back in the 1960s Wojtyla was one of the radical young intellectual archbishops sent to Rome to stir things up at the Vatican 2 conference (in part just as an excuse to get the trouble maker out of Poland for a few years), which permanently changed the public face of Catholicism: eliminating claims of an exclusive institutional right to declare who could have God’s grace and who couldn’t, with all those not explicitly submitted to papal authority being damned to hell; embracing freedom of religion and rejecting the doctrine that all good Catholic rulers and political leaders should work to eliminate people’s freedom to worship in non-Catholic ways; expanding the role given to active participation by the laity in Catholic rituals in general; and somewhat in counter-balance to all of these liberalizing tendencies, explicitly emphasizing the church’s right to regulate people’s sex lives.

hurricane_carter_wall_01bBack in the 1960s Rubin Carter was building a reputation for being everything that middle class white Americans feared about young urban blacks: a gun-toting, hard partying fighter who had been dishonorably discharged from the Army prior to the Viet Nam crisis. Carter was pulled over one hot June night in 1966 for “driving while black”. Circumstantial evidence from that contact with the police was used months later to convict him and the friend he was riding with that night of shooting up a Patterson, New Jersey bar, resulting in 3 deaths.

In the 1970s Bob Dylan wrote an extended ballad about Carter’s case that drew international attention to the matter. In 1976 Carter was given a retrial, which he also lost, but not without a lot of international attention being drawn to the problematic issues involved in the case. In 1978 Wojtyla became Pope –– the first non-Italian to get the job in over 400 years. In the process he managed to draw a great deal of international attention to the problems of official anti-religious actions being taken by governments under the Soviet sphere of influence.

Pope John Paul II - Voight
In the 1980s both men “won” their battles, sort of. Carter’s convictions were overturned on procedural grounds and the Soviet bloc discovered that “Glasnost” – openness – was more than their oppressive systems could handle, leading to its systemic implosion. Carter, living out his remaining years in Canada, and John Paul, living out his remaining years in the Vatican, had gained the status of moral heroes of the oppressed in the countries they had left behind. Both continued, in their own humanly flawed ways, to fight for the rights of those they saw as oppressed for the rest of their lives.

Their epic struggles not withstanding though, both men suffered from a certain credibility deficit with regard to key aspects of the causes they came to represent: Carter in terms of being violence-prone; Wojtyla in terms of personifying the Catholic Church’s head-in-sand approach to sex problems. No one can credibly accuse Carter of being any sort of urban warlord, and no one can credibly accuse Wojtyla of not having kept his pants zipped, but in their respective zeals for their causes both can be said to have overlooked major issues that some “normal people” have a certain justification in feeling angry about or threatened by.

It is true that many young black men who have been raised under circumstances of systematic injustice and oppression become dangerously violent and disrespectful of any abstract concept of the rights of others. Just because they are victims themselves does not mean that they are not dangerous. Carter’s case and his work over the course of the last third of his life, after his convictions were overturned, seem to belittle these risk factors.

It is true that emotionally meaningless recreational sexuality has got grossly out of control in the past couple of generations, and that some form of deeper motivational force for personal restraint in that regard may be in order, but that does not make it safe for any authoritarian religious organization to claim the right to control people’s sex lives. This is especially the case when isolated individuals within such organizations’ ranks are prone to use their position of power to sexually dominate vulnerable individuals under their charge, and this is especially objectionable when the vulnerable individuals in question are (pre-)pubescent children. John Paul’s obsession with maintaining a hard line on issues related to sexual control, together with his inability to deal effectively with matters of priestly abuse of power and especially pedophilia within his organization, have seriously sullied his saintly reputation in ways that his conservative fans largely fail to grasp.

Those who would wish to use these men as saints of their respective causes –– fighting against racial prejudice and abuse within the criminal justice system of the United States in particular, and maintaining an emphasis on sexual moralizing over social justice issues within the Vatican hierarchy and the American Religious Right respectively –– would prefer that their heroes continue to be presented in as sympathetic and unsullied a light as possible. It is far easier to promote their causes if they don’t have to content with attack sound-bites and negative talking points from their opponents. Neither group can be accused of being excessively honest and open about their heroes in this regard. Yet meanwhile the general public seems to realize that both heroes had their serious weaknesses; thus the public enthusiasm for both hagiographies is running rather thin this spring, keeping either Carter’s death or Wojtyla’s canonization from being front page news.

I have read far more of John Paul II’s writings than I have the Hurricane’s, so I’m in a better position to deconstruct that hagiography than the other. For the casual reader here though, suffice it to say that by the end of the first Bush presidency the Pope’s political sympathies had been thoroughly co-opted by his Cold War comrades in the United States, with Ronald Reagan as their own patron saint. This can especially be seen in John Paul’s supremely naïve statement in the encyclical Centesimus Annus, where he says (in § 41), “Exploitation, at least in the forms analyzed and described by Karl Marx, has been overcome in Western society.” It can also be seen in the complete absence of concern for the poor in his encyclical writings from that point onward.

It wasn’t that these problems were all magically solved once the Cold War was over; it was merely that the Pope had become convinced that after playing a role in defeating communism he now needed to focus his energies on defeating all forms of promiscuity an unauthorized sex. Abortion was part and parcel of this evil, and a particularly conspicuous issue to be raised politically, especially in the US political market. It might also be said to have served as a convenient form of PR offensive by which the church could attempt to draw attention away from scandals regarding cover-ups of priests’ pedophilic practices, which may have been going on since time immemorial, but which came to light in steadily increasing ways over the entire course of John Paul’s papacy.

The relevance of all this is not in terms of reducing Wojtyla’s personal historical significance, or discrediting him as a virtuous and intelligent human being. The point is more to say that a continued emphasis on his moralistic “pro-life” heritage is problematic at best, and trying to maintain momentum in that movement on the basis of his personal heroic stature is looking like less and less of a winning strategy. His shift of emphasis in his post-Cold War years away from “social issues” and towards “moral issues” –– arguably due to the influence of American political conservatives on his thinking –– has probably done Christendom in general and the Catholic Church in particular far more harm than good. Pope Francis’ primary historical role thus far has been to push the boundaries of how far he can take the matter of shifting the emphasis back in the other direction. This in turn has won Francis blanket condemnation from those within the US Religious Right, and universal praise from pretty much every other possible source. This makes his presiding over John Paul’s canonization this weekend all the more ironic.

As for the Hurricane, it doesn’t take too much research to reach the conclusion that when Denzel Washington claimed that he was “all love”, that was more than a little bit of an exaggeration. Carter certainly had a lot of love of various sorts within him, but there was a lot of ugliness as well. How far that ugliness goes in justifying the actions of the US “prison-industrial complex” that he spent the last half of his life fighting against is another question. Unlike John Paul, however, the Hurricane achieved no major shift in the status quo from which the pendulum might now swing back the other direction. There are still many people who resent the extent to which darker skinned people can be treated as their equals, but there is no sense that now we’ve got to the point that we’ve been doing too much for black people and now we have to start working on putting them back in their “natural” inferior position. Thus Carter’s human failures cannot be taken as a valid excuse for re-enslaving black people or otherwise reducing the civil rights they have been fighting to gain recognition for. The problem is just that, given his mixed legacy, Carter’s death will probably have little effect in terms of energizing people to fight for the cause he has represented for the past 40 years.

The lessons in all this? Choose your heroes and icons carefully, and be prepared to be disappointed by them; but regardless of this risk, seek inspiration for the courage to change this world for the better wherever you can find it, and don’t let your heroes’ failures keep you from fighting for worthy causes which they stood for.

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And Still We Keep Trying

I started trying to write this last weekend as a stream of consciousness piece, attempting to overcome a bit of writer’s block. Then I got distracted and blocked again before finishing it. Let’s see if I can finish it now and purge some of the overall despair from my system in doing so.

The past couple of weeks have been a more or less continuous exercise in overcoming despair worldwide. It’s not that things are particularly bad right now where I happen to be, and I’m not feeling especially sad or depressed at the moment, but there’s a sense with virtually every area of life that my/our chances of influencing things in a positive/safe/dignified/sustainable direction are especially limited.

Vladimir PutinI’ll start with the most globally obvious source of stress: Putin. It’s more than a little scary to see that the world’s most evil dictator is less than ten years older than me, and that he has been a de facto dictator for 15 years already. And for anyone to claim that Vlad is a popularly elected head of state that the people are free to vote out of power… I hope that the turf battles between the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny don’t get too violent in that world you live in.

To make matters worse, his closest competitor is this little psychopath in Korea, who happens to be younger than my sons! So besides the fact that our world has some fundamentally messed up structures to it, I’m continuously reminded that my limited time for playing an active role in influencing matters here is speeding by, with little sign of progress!

1936 scupturesPutting aside my aging angst and going back to the Putin problem though, the Sochi Olympics last month were the closest thing in my lifetime to the Berlin Olympics of 1936 in terms of their efforts to glorify the accomplishments of a dictator. The main things that were missing from that picture were German technical competence and a heroic Jesse Owens figure to steal the limelight from the dictator for part of the spectacle. The most enjoyable moments for me were watching the Finnish ice hockey team beat Russia and then the United States. (Sorry hockey friends there. It’s just more culturally important here, and you have to admit, Selanne did deserve to go out on a high note like that.)  My mother enjoyed watching the ice dance and figure skating events when we happened to have the television open while she was visiting. My nephew developed a certain technical fascination with curling it seems. I couldn’t go much further than politely respecting their tastes on either. It hardly made for inspiring viewing for me overall.

bear tearIt’s hard to say which was more fake in the closing ceremony:  the IOC chairman’s praise what a wonderful job Russia had done or the synthetic tear of the ananmatronic bear on skates. While I strongly support the whole concept of the Olympic spirit and all that, I cringe to see it used with such transparent corruption, and I really don’t know what can be done to fix that problem, or keep it from further snowballing in years to come.

Syria-uprising-At-least-88-protesters-were-killed-This problem has tragically dovetailed into the events featured in other sections of our daily newspapers over the past month: the popular uprisings in Syria, Venezuela, Ukraine and other countries attempting to overthrow lesser dictators than Putin. Many of these public square demonstrations and coup attempts have been getting very messy, and journalists don’t really seem to know what to say about any of them. It’s hard to sympathize with the struggling strongmen in any of these countries, but regardless of the on-going messy legacy of Bush’s Iraq fiasco there is still something to be said for a residual respect for Westphalian principle of nominally acknowledging national sovereignty in such matters. Not to mention how various rebel groups tend to have their own unsavory supporters and bedfellows for us to worry about, especially in this generation when the CIA’s accidental creation of the Taliban is still fresh on everyone’s mind.

So with all of this confusion up in the air Putin somehow decided that this would be a real good moment to cash in on his political capital from the Olympics and invade Ukraine.

TOPSHOTS-UKRAINE-RUSSIA-UNREST-POLITICS-CRIMEANot that anyone was under the illusion that Ukraine had ever really achieved complete national sovereignty since the collapse of the Soviet Union. They have made some significant strides towards join Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in sliding over into European culture and NATO’s sphere of influence, but the orangeness of their revolution wasn’t nearly enough to break free of the bear hug they’re still in. And besides a Black Sea coast that for some obscure reason Putin considers to be strategically important, the outside world has a hard time seeing much in Ukraine really worth fighting over. So what’s to stop us from just letting this expansive dictator have his way with little pieces of this lesser neighboring country?

Just one thing actually: The only thing worse than Putin making delusional efforts to restore the glories of the Soviet empire is for the last remaining military superpower from the Cold War era to find new excuses for expanding its “military-industrial complex” at its own people’s and the rest of the world’s expense.

iraq war troopsThat reminds me of a whole other can of political worms that seems rather hopeless to untangle. Since the mid-1990s, and especially since 2002, the United States has been more or less continuously involved in a series of military police actions around the world involving American soldiers killing and being killed for causes that overall have less to do with American national security than Viet Nam did. Yes, there was some justification in attacking a country which was providing refuge to a terrorist leader who had engineered a series of attacks that succeeded in killing thousands of Americans within their own country. No, that did not provide moral justification for the use of that conflict as a political smoke screen under which to attack other dictators in the region; even if they did control significant oil reserves and even if they had succeeded in making a fool out of the president’s daddy internationally.

The only “logic” to justify the state of perpetual war that the US has found itself in for my school-aged nephews’ entire lives thus far is that it appears to be good for business. Companies which make bombs, guns, airplanes, troop transport vehicles, armor and fuel for all of these are making trillions (literally) off of these adventures, and some small portion of the income from these government contracts is actually filtering down to American workers and voters. In this way the military-industrial interests, and those who depend on them, have more at stake, and more invested in maintaining political influence, than any abusive sector of the economy since the black slave trade of the 1850s. The military industrialists have thus eclipsed the tobacco industry of the Carolinas, the steel and railroad industries of the reconstruction era, the automotive industry with their lobbies in favor of highway infrastructure development, and even the modern pharmaceutical industry. When you consider the mammoth amounts of political corruption that went into those other lesser endeavors already, and the immense dishonest fortunes built off of them at the public’s expense, you can’t help but experience a sense of awe at the sheer immensity of the evil involved!

The number of human beings who have been treated as disposable in the process of building these fortunes –– as sub-subsistence laborers, soldiers, other casualties of war, ignorant and addicted consumers, involuntary supporters of corporate welfare programs via taxation, and tragic human failures among the homeless or imprisoned whose fate serves as a negative example to keep others in line –– cannot be rationalized away as an acceptable trade-off, an inadvertent misfortune or a hiccup in the process of human advancement. We are clearly talking about one little group of people having explicitly chosen to treat other massive group of people as un-deserving of human dignity, just because they can. This tiny privileged group has clearly made it their goal in life to prove to themselves that their excessive privileges at the expense of others are part of the way things are supposed to be. If a few million need to die earlier from causes like war, hunger and preventable disease in order to bring this about, so be it. The fact that they have succeeded in using association with certain factions of Christianity as means of constructing their self-justifications makes the situation all the more obscene.

Behind_Barbed_WireThis state of affairs is made all the more absurd by political initiatives intended to limit the extent to which public resources can be spent to reinforce the dignity and opportunities of those in the least advantaged positions in society. The idea that a society can somehow afford to police the rest of the world and force its business practices onto the rest of the world, but it can’t afford to provide food for its own hungry children and basic health care for its own ill, is quite conspicuously the most absurd political argument of the 21st century. The only argument that even comes close on the absurdity scale is that a proliferation of privately held handguns serves to make people safer. Having accepted those arguments, when the right wing faithful hear from their trusted sources sound-bite sources that they should never trust scientific claims that continuous burning of massive amounts of fossil fuels is doing irreparable damage to our eco-system, it comes across sounding to them like the most basic common sense!

The thing that makes me/us feel helpless and despairing about all this then is that there are so many people who I know out there, who are not only falling for these absurd arguments, but who’ve been falling for them for so long that they have become emotionally committed to defending them at all costs! As long as that remains the basic state of affairs even for a significant minority in the United States, and as long as momentum from the last century keeps the United States in the position of being the most powerful nation in the world, human rights will continue to be downplayed in the rest of the world as well, the global environment will continue to be ignored whenever protecting it is inconvenient to business interests; and the risk of there being no future whatsoever left for grandchildren I may happen to have some day, regardless of where in the world I might try to hide them from such problems, continues to expand unchecked.

IRAQ-WAR-GAMESThe number of ways in which humanity could drive itself to a state of mass extermination if not borderline extinction within the next generation or two is deeply intimidating to say at the least. The limited number of means at our disposal for limiting these risks and promoting more positive life directions for those we care about are even more disturbing. There’s only one thing that can be said in terms of resisting the temptation of total resignation: The worst thing we can do is to give up entirely.

david-simonDavid Simon made this point particularly strongly in his last interview with Bill Moyer (here starting approximately 7:00 in). Where I would disagree with his statements in that interview is in terms of the best hope being in campaign finance reform. While that certainly can’t hurt, I believe the best hope is in improved public education, so that those who are involved in the democratic process as voters and campaigners actually understand the issues they are struggling over, and the cause and effect factors involved. Until the education system is fixed, people will continue not to know any better than voting either for whoever they find the most entertaining, or whoever appeals most powerfully to the darker sides of their natures. But in the meantime, as Simon points out so eloquently, we indeed don’t have the luxury of opting out of the electoral process and leaving voting up to psychopaths and those weaker thinkers whom they can most easily manipulate.

The same applies to all other areas of life: We can’t just give up and passively let whatever’s going to happen happen with regard to our families’ health, our children’s education, our consumer alternatives, our communal solidarity or any other aspect of life where our active participation can conceivably make a difference. We never can tell which of our actions will make a difference in the world as we know it, but we can be pretty sure that if we do absolutely nothing we will have no effect on the world whatsoever. Thus making an effort is always worth attempting no matter how bad things look.

Titanic_sinkingNow of course there are some exceptions here: The most effective tear-jerking scene in the film Titanic was the simple shot of the mother in the discount cabins, knowing they had been locked into their compartment and that she and her children were soon to die, bravely singing them to sleep as the water rose. But with all due respect for all in that sort of situation, it should be obvious why I don’t want to see people I care about adopting that sort of strategy on a broader basis.

In short the maxim I’m recommending is: Act as though your actions might make a positive difference in the world, even if that difference is unlikely to be realized through any given action you might take, because some of your actions might in fact make a difference in the world.

Thus, regardless of their overall limited impact, I keep writing and posting these things…

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Life in the Interregnum

This week, at a sweet little academic event in Estonia, I got to meet the legendary European intellectual Zygmunt Bauman, arguably the greatest surviving theorist of the old postmodern movement. It was a great collection of moments, giving me among other things a chance to ask if I had properly interpreted his intent with the blogs I wrote about his ideas last summer. I didn’t get particularly direct answers on that, but I would have been rather shocked if I had. Not only does Bauman have better things to do in his late eighties than to contemplate my ideas, but he has a well established reputation for finding ways around talking about things he doesn’t wish to talk about.

058Bauman’s trademark term these days is “liquid modern”, which is broadly taken as a euphemism for the same vague collection of ideas as “postmodernism”: the loss of old certainties, borders being washed away, everything being in a state of flux and flow, etc. It remains somewhat of an open question whether this state of affairs should be considered more of a tragedy or an opportunity. That’s one of the things Bauman particularly wants to avoid being pinned down on. In his trademark self-irony regarding his advanced age he merely states that there’s no going back to the past, and the long-term future is really not his problem anymore.

Bauman’s focus in this week’s talks was his current theme of the contemporary Interregnum. This word, he tells us, was first used in dealing with the crisis following the “loss” of Rome’s first king, Romulus. Romulus had ruled for 38 years, which was longer than the average life expectancy in Rome at the time. Thus the vast majority of Romans had never known any form of life where King Romulus wasn’t “guiding their lives”. As far as we know this is also the first case of a legend being established for a ruler not dying but being swept up into heaven while still alive to rule among the gods. But this left the people with the question of now how were they going to turn for direction. Soon enough another king came along and commenced ruling in much the same style as Romulus, and there followed a string of kings of that model which continued until the aristocracy got tired of them and set about to form a republic. That transition involved a whole new form of interregnum. Thereafter history has tossed many other sorts of transitions at us that we can call “interregnums”, some more hectically dangerous than others; with the common feature, to paraphrase Gramsci, of the old ways no longer working, but the new ways having yet to be invented.

In this sense it seems entirely fair to say that we are in a particularly significant global interregnum at present, in terms of both power and ideology. It’s happened before, but not on this scale in quite a while. Bauman theorizes that what we are witnessing is nothing less than the collapse of the final remnants of the Peace of Westphalia. The privileged position of nation-states to determine the religious norms within their borders, to negotiate in a binding way for all of their citizens and to be the ultimate loci of diplomatic and economic authority is effectively gone. It could even be said that the primary role of nation-states had its last hurrah when the Berlin Wall fell. In place of all the grandiose monuments of competing republics from the Cold War era, Berlin is now the site of grandiose monuments of competing multi-national electronics corporations. The de facto ruling principle of the world for the last few decades has been not the state, but the all-powerful “invisible hand of the market,” with its little minions manipulating state governments as they see fit, with impunity.

083The market, however, has already proven itself to be an incompetent mechanism of social organization. The rampant inequality, continuous high tech war-mongering against non-state entities, the incoherent “culture wars” brought in as a distraction and the continuous scattered protest movements that characterize contemporary societies together provide ample testimony to the fact that the current crop of sociopaths at the top of the laissez faire economic pig-pile are unlikely to remain there for long. Nor is there any particular reason to defend this dying system other than perhaps out of a general fear of change. Bauman gave a glowing endorsement to South African novelist and intellectual J. M. Coetzee before quoting him as saying, “God did not make the market –– God, or the spirit of history. If we human beings made it, can we not unmake it and re-make it in another form? Why does the world have to be kill or be killed (gladiatorial amphitheater) rather than say a cooperative […] atrium?”

The relevant question, however, is less one of what needs to be done, but rather how we can go about empowering someone to do it. We’re not ready to hand this authority over to Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Tony Blair, David Koch, Vladimir Putin or Martti Ahtisaari, or anyone else you might imagine as a new global statesman. The closest think that Bauman suggests to an answer to this dilemma is to start looking to the pragmatic flow of life in cities in particular as the starting point for democratic solutions. Cities have a dual role in contemporary society: they are the dumping grounds for all forms of socially discarded individuals, and they are the experimental laboratories for developing new means of cross-cultural and inter-cultural cooperation and communication. On this basis Bauman is ready to tentatively endorse Benjamin Barber’s suggestion of letting mayors rule the world.

But this is endorsement is quite tentative. “The only certainty is uncertainty.” The analogy he uses is one of “primeval mountain climbing”: “When you’re climbing a steep slope you know one thing for sure: you can’t settle there, because there are gusts of wind blowing from all directions that can destroy your camp in no time. So you have to keep going, you have to keep climbing if you want to stay alive. But, and that’s a very big but, until you reach the mountain pass you have no idea what is on the other side of the mountain. …We can’t rely on any temporary traction settlement.”

Meanwhile, while we’re climbing, waiting to see what is on the other side of this historical mountain and hoping for the best in terms of whatever sort of reign comes next, there remains the question of “Which way is up?” How can we maintain some sort of climbing momentum? How do we act in a morally responsible and constructive way in terms of our political participation, in the broadest sense of the word?

huisjen bauman tallinnI put the proposal to Bauman that his take in On Education seems to imply that building active citizenship skills in the next generation might be a valid starting point. I didn’t get a direct answer. Here’s how he responded:

“I admit that I am here making virtue out of necessity, because the ability to dialog –– the ability to live profitably with others holding to different views, others holding to different predilections, different preferences, different values and so on –– that is effectively required. The problem with liquid modernity, since I’ve already used this term, is that it erodes the social or the foundation or morphology of solidarity.

“The choice state of modernity could be charged with very many crimes, very many mis-doings, but one advantage it had over the present time, and that was precisely that the massive industrial production created by the imperial side of modernity, whatever these factories produced, they also produced, in addition, also human solidarity. They were cast into the situation where spontaneously, automatically almost, created this feeling of being in the same boat, sharing faith, necessity to come together, solidarity and so on. It was a time of collective bargaining, and what’s important really, mutual dependency. If you take the typical Fordist factory, of course the workers working for Ford were dependent on Ford for their living, but Ford on his side was dependent on his workers for their work. They were mutually dependent. He couldn’t pack up his Detroit factories and transfer them to Bangladesh or to other places where there is more docile working class and where people are prepared to work like those …who were killed in the recent catastrophe in a Bangladesh factory, working for $38 per week. He wasn’t able to do that. He knew that his future, his work depended on his workers. When both sides know that they are doomed to live together, that they are bound to meet again tomorrow and next week and next month and next year, and for the next ten years, then they sit around the table and they quarrel and they go on strike or whatever, but they quarrel and fight in order to arrive at some sort of modus vivendi which is acceptable to both sides. So those factories were factories of solidarity, not by desire but by default. That was their nature.

“Today places of employment are factories of mutual suspicion. There is no collective bargaining. There is no ‘one for all, all for one.’ It is everyone for himself. When it comes to the next round of redundancies you have to prove that you are working better than the next person, and therefore the next person rather would be the victim of redundancy, not you. That’s a situation which puts you under a condition of enforced antagonism or suspicion. So we are losing our ability of spontaneous solidarity. We are also losing another ability. (I’m not a prophet. I’m only noting the present day tendencies. I am trying to bring them to your attention.) We are losing the skills of dialog.

Allegedly, and this is my great, great frustration, universal access to Internet is already happening. It should precisely do the opposite –– open the variety of the human species in front of everybody, expose them to different arguments, to variegation of the human condition, and so on. Ladies and gentlemen, we have replaced communities with networks. Networks have the one great advantage over communities that they are created and re-created constantly with two activities. One activity is connecting and the other is disconnecting. Internet gives you the perfect opportunity to connect with the world, while virtually all researchers of actual use of Internet by people document exactly the opposite: that it is a very powerful instrument of separating yourself from the differences in the world.

“It is so childishly easy on Internet to do what is tremendously difficult to do on any street of a big city. If you go to the street of a big city today and you cannot avoid the trial of coming face to face with different colors of skin, different views, different ways of behavior, different ways of dressing or whatever. When you are spending your average, according to the latest research, 7½ hours in front of a computer screen, not another human being. It is childishly easy to switch to another website and forget about all of the differences in the world. You are closing yourself into what can be called an echo chamber. The only sounds that you hear are the reflections of your own voice… You listen only to like-minded people. Therefore Internet, the network, is a trouble-free area. You don’t have any trouble. You don’t have to dialog. There’s no one to dialog with. You just go on through the rules of repeating the same views, the same slogans, the same ideas of what is interesting, and so on.

“Real dialog is confrontation with otherness, in which you are acting with a dual role. You must be some sort of a teacher, otherwise there would be no point for the other person to engage in dialog with you. You must bring some sort of a dowry, otherwise there’s no meaning. But also the role of a disciple, of a pupil. You must be prepared to learn from the other. You must assume from the start not that you are starting your speech at a university seminar, where the assumption is ‘I am right and I will prove that they are not.’ You have to be open to share your own experience and be prepared to be shown to be wrong –– to take the risk of being proved to be not as good as your other member of the dialog. So dialog is a confrontation, but because of being a confrontation it is also a non-zero-sum game. A real dialog does not divide the conversationalists into winners and losers. Everyone emerges from the dialog a winner. Everybody’s enriched by adding another experience to your whole and by getting rid of some mistakes you have made before. So you are richer than before. That’s the art of dialog, which is tremendously important in contemporary life and we all need that meta-task in a sense. Without learning the art of dialog and practicing it, I think we can’t really seriously, earnestly ever come towards resolving otherness.”

So yes, education is key to moving forward through the current interregnum, and philosophical education in particular is key to this process –– but perhaps not in the sense of pressing set facts and formulas into young minds, but rather teaching them to confront otherness without fear and to find ways to be enriched by it. This isn’t easy, because there are indeed many who have vested power interest in maintaining hatreds and tensions over areas of difference. That too is part of the challenge of the current interregnum. But another thing that can be both a prerequisite for dialog and the fruit of dialog is a “fusion of horizons”, according to which we realize that the other is a lot more like us than we thought, and that in order to get what we want out of life it seriously helps to enable the other to also get what he wants.

It would be more than a little naïve to assume that dialog will always work this way. Borrowing from folk wisdom in the field, Bauman allows himself the cynicism of admitting, “We never resolve an issue, we only get bored with them and take them off the agenda.” Nowhere is this more relevant than in regard to the uses and abuses of religion in the western world today, which another audience member asked the venerable old professor about. That question, however, he ducked even more thoroughly, stating the Europeanness as such is sociologically shown not to be that big a deal to anyone in particular, and that its relevance is not so much in terms of cultural heredity markers by rather in terms of the same “fusion of horizons” he spoke of earlier.

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059Besides the thrill of meeting an important intellectual celebrity there was a lot to chew on from this lecture and the following formal and informal discussions. The interregnum theme applies in many different areas of life as I know it: old restrictions and certainties having crumbled to the point where we can neither restore them nor trust depend on them as a basis for cultural certainty; new rules and identifiers still taking shape, without any clear image yet of how they will work once they’ve properly taken hold. In the case of Finnish culture this relates quite directly to the transition out of the Nokia era, with its cultural emphasis on the whole PISA shtick, into God only knows what comes next. In African culture and post-colonial culture as a whole we have just come to the end of the Mandela era, with all that he symbolized for so many –– coming entirely expectedly and yet in a way that still felt sudden this winter. There is a distinct lack of a replacement moral hero for those who Madiba inspired in the world today. Then in the world of Christian influence on society we are arguably seeing the major implosion of the Fundamentalist reaction against modernism in general, seen in the US in particular in the way that the progression from the Moral Majority to the “Tea Party” has so thoroughly discredited itself with its moralistic lack of interest in anything that Jesus ever taught. People continue to need a sense of existentially significant shared identity as God’s people, and neither “New Atheist” nor Muslim fantasies about the demise of Christianity as the world’s largest religion in terms of meeting that need for people are likely to come true any time soon, but within Christianity we could easily now be facing the greatest era of re-definition of the faith since the time of Luther. That too may deserve to be called an interregnum.

So while we wait and watch to see what forms the new bosses take, I believe Bauman is entirely right that we need to keep building our dialog skills and keep actively involved in promoting the values of solidarity and sustainability. These exercises will have value regardless of what we happen to find on the other side of the mountain pass. Do I hear an Amen?

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An Open Letter to the Arctic Polar Vortex

Dear Vort,

How have you been? I looked out my window this morning and for the second day in a row the reading on my little thermometer there was south of -20 C, so I said to myself, “Oh, looks like the vortex is back.”

We were looking forward to seeing a bit of you around Christmas time, but then we heard you decided to spend the holidays in America. How did that work out for you? Canada certainly has some beautiful spots to visit. I heard you particularly enjoyed Niagra and Montreal this winter. The Canadians are also on fairly good terms with you overall. They’re good folk.

Niagara Falls WinterFrom what I hear your visit to the US was somewhat more problematic. What can I say? My old countrymen aren’t exactly known for their hospitality to outsiders these days, no matter how white they are. Most of them had never heard of you before, and even after your visit, surprisingly many of them still think you’re a myth. Some there tend to think that as long as they regard the system of biblical interpretation that they’ve been socialized into as absolute fact, that’s as much abstract thinking as they can be expected to carry out. The rest of the more difficult process of understanding the world around them tends to go over their heads. They tend to consider those making such efforts as abstract leftist intellectuals. Go figure.

ARCTIC-WINTER-WEATHER-2013-570Very few realized that your visit was at the invitation of some of the country’s major business interests. Even the more educated ones, vaguely aware of why you decided to do some travelling this winter, seem to have the idea that the Chinese sent you. And all in all, in spite of their bravado and defiance against all natural phenomena like yourself, many of them found themselves entirely helpless to make the adjustments necessary to accommodate your visit. Whatever the case, I’d recommend not going back there any time soon if you can avoid it.

032Over in this part of the world, in the European countries on the Arctic Circle, we’ve sort of got used to having you around. Yes, we too tend to piss and moan about your work here, but even so, you’ve become a significant part of life as we know it, and even if we don’t admit it, we sort of miss you when you’re gone. I mean, pussy willows out at Christmas and New Year’s –– that’s just too strange for Finns and Swedes! Yes, some folks have enjoyed taking a break from having to clean up after you all the time, and those doing the bridge repairs just down the road from my house were able to get their work done much faster without you around; but then there are some folks who have been waiting for you to help them build their ice roads and the like, and it seriously screws up their system when you don’t show up.

002Beyond all that, we’ve come to realize that your work is important, not only in giving us the sort of rhythms we’ve got used to over the years and built our infrastructures around, but in keeping things in balance by holding back the flow of some significant water reserves. Even if they don’t believe in you, it remains true that if those from the U.S. succeed in killing you off, we’re all pretty much screwed. Going down to visit them really doesn’t help; it really only makes them all the more anxious to kill you off. So please, stay home and stay strong.

What else can I say? I’m sort of surprised that after crossing the ocean on your way back you haven’t brought more snow with you, but then again we had plenty of precipitation while we were waiting for you. It doesn’t really help to complain to you about it. Speaking for most of my adopted countrymen here (the Finns) we really just want to say welcome back. Please take it easy on us now, but stay cool.

Yours, DH

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Reconstructing Hillbilly Values

NBC peacockI grew up during what might be called the second half of the first television generation. My parents came from lower middle class farm families that never had televisions at home during their elementary school years at least but they became aware of that side of American culture by way of their richer friends with more liberal parents, and by the time I came along living rooms were being designed around these ubiquitous devices. Broadcasting in color was an innovation that occurred in the United States during my childhood, so these days my personal antiquity is well established.

From its earliest years though, television has had seriously nostalgic elements to it. It has always promoted an ideal of simpler times. Sometimes this was a matter of providing a secondary market for B-movies of the 30s and 40s, but besides the actually old stuff they broadcasted, there has seemingly always been a market for comic depictions of the world as it was in one’s parents’ times and earlier. In some ways this would explain how the “cowboys and Indians” genre became established in film in 20s and 30s, about one generation after such lifestyles had faded into the mythical past.

In any case, in my earliest memories of television the golden age of half-hour sitcoms was blooming, including some that looked back nostalgically at “simpler times” a generation earlier, when the US was particularly pumped up about their glorious role in World War 2 and the subsequent reconstruction, such as McHale’s Navy and Hogan’s Heroes. Then as we shifted into the 70s, the nostalgia wave began to target the 50s, most memorably with Happy Days and its spin-offs, but also with MASH and Grease in their various televised incarnations.

bevhillBut there was also, from the start, another common variation on the theme: looking at various Rip Van Winkle-like characters who had somehow managed to culturally sleep through all of the changes that had been occurring in society, thus interacting with “normal people” from a comically antiquated and out of touch perspective that was somehow nevertheless refreshing to watch. It could be said that this accounted for much of the appeal of Green Acres and The Andy Griffith Show (later known as Mayberry R.F.D.). But the archetype for this sort of comic nostalgia format was really The Beverly Hillbillies. This show has been on my mind for the past few weeks, in part because it explains something of the recent Duck Dynasty debacle, and in part because of how it relates to the problems of PISA ratings as such.

0412_jed-clampett_280x340This show basically focused on six main characters: each with their own interestingly mal-adapted forms of intelligence. The Clampetts of Beverly Hills consisted of the patriarch Jed, who had become a millionaire through the accidental discovery of oil on the property he owned back somewhere in the rural Appalachians or Ozarks, his daughter Elly May, his late wife’s mother “Granny,” and his second cousin and foster-son Jethro Bodine. From the time of their arrival in Los Angeles’ Beverly Hills, this quartet in was effectively being kept in a comfortable semi-reality by their banker and neighbor, Milburn Drysdale, and his indispensable secretary and the all-around brains of the operation, Miss Jane Hathaway.

Granny-Beverly-HillbilliesJed and his family are all super-human strong, with outsized appetites for food to fuel this energy level. Granny, the feisty matriarch of the clan, keeps them stocked with enough home-style “vittles” to maintain this energy level as well as keeping the mansion clean and brewing up various forms of back-woods magic to help in difficult situations. Jed in turn spends much of his time sitting around whittling, though within his own limits he is always ready to dive in and sort out various problems that fall to the head of an old-fashioned household to take care of. Jethro is the primary “project” for the family. He is apparently the most literate member of the family, the holder of a driver’s license to operate their family car (a vintage truck from the 20s, held together with a fair amount of bailing wire it seems), and in spite of his overall cluelessness, he is the one they are expecting to someday find a wife and establish a brilliant career for himself to do the family proud. Elly May, meanwhile, occupies herself with caring for a Snow White-like menagerie of semi-tame animals while struggling part-time with the dilemma of why she as a girl is not given the same amount of investment that Jethro receives as a boy. Then we have the “plain Jane” Miss Hathaway continuously struggling to be subtle about her major crush on Jethro and trying to maintain a certain level of “this world” reality into her boss’s crazier efforts to make the Clampetts feel at home in Beverly Hills rather than withdrawing their eight-digit fortune from his bank and crawling back into the wilderness from whence they came. It was an interesting enough dynamic to keep the show running for nine production seasons, remaining immensely popular through its entire run.

The best explanation I have heard of for the logic behind the reality TV show Duck Dynasty is that it attempts to recapturing some of the marketing magic of these hillbillies of the sixties, combining that with a bit of the “real family business” appeal of shows like American Chopper, Pawn Stars and the rest: a “poor white trash” rural southern family which is comically out of touch with the modern world, yet through a fluke of their own good fortune they have become rich enough where the modern world sort of has to take them seriously in spite of their on-going cluelessness.

That makes sense actually. Not enough sense where I’d personally be motivated to try and find the means by which to watch the show (as far off the grid of American cable television as I am) but still, sense. The problem is that while CBS could entirely manage every word that came out of Jed Clampett’s mouth, and not really have to worry about the ignorance that made Jed entertaining on TV coming out of actor Buddy Ebsen’s mouth in his private life, A&E have nothing like that sort of control over the Robertson family in general and patriarch Phil in particular.

They say that a big part of what makes the show so interesting and entertaining (I’ve never watched it myself, and I have no plans of ever watching it, unless I need to do so as part of my academic research into American theocratic impulses, so I sort of have to go with what “they” say in this case) is that it showcases a sub-culture as far from the mainstream of modern society as that of any bounty hunter, biker gang veteran, Vegas pawn broker or obese junior showgirl showcased elsewhere in the genre. So… if the exotic culture they’re setting out to exploit in this way just happens to spill out as homophobic, naively racist and almost comically narrow-minded… what are they supposed to do about it? Isn’t that part of the point of reality TV in general –– to add the excitement of an unscripted, unpredictable “authenticity” into the mix? Weren’t they aware of the fact that racism and homophobia are as much part of the “white trash” sub-culture in the southern US as substance abuse is part of so many of the other sub-cultures exploited in this medium?

duck-dynasty-walmart-display4So when it blows up in their faces what are they supposed to do about it? They’re too addicted to the money they’re making off of this franchise, and enthralled with the merchandizing honeymoon this has sent them on with Walmart, to seriously consider quitting now. So one way or another they just have to find a way to stay on that ‘gater and ride it to the end of… whatever.

It has to be said though that this sort of show is put on the air primarily to communicate a message that is important enough to its creators where they are willing to take chances with what they see as trivial matters regarding like the Robertsons’ religious obsessions. The primary message they want to get out is that in America anyone has a chance to become a millionaire, so everyone should keep taking their chances and no one should start taking privileges away from those who have been able to realize their dreams in order to deal with trivial matters like childhood nutrition, health care and education. It effectively reinforces the truth of quote somewhat questionably attributed to John Steinbeck: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” 

By feeding this fantasy self-image via the Duck Dynasty dudes, A&E and their programming competitors have successfully campaigned to maintain public support for “anti-socialist” policies that continue to handicap over 99% of their supporters –– turning turkeys into the world’s most dedicated fans of Thanksgiving as it were. As long as they can keep doing that they’re willing to take their chances with what people think of the Robertsons firmly believing that the universe is less than ten thousand years old, or that blacks were happier in the “good old days” before Martin Luther King and company screwed things up, or that public acceptance of homosexuality is a slippery slope towards all sorts of other unspeakable forms of immoral perversion. In terms of getting Phil and his boys to tone down their message, the network’s “suspension” efforts in December may have entirely backfired, but like, so what? It boosted their ratings and reinforced their own primary message that any idiot can become rich and famous someday all the more. The rest is details as far as the bosses are concerned.

BevH886But I was actually thinking of The Beverly Hillbillies well before this quacker-maker scandal story broke last month. As I said, the show also relates quite effectively in its own way to the problem of PISA testing which I wrote about here a month ago. You see, part of the alternative reality world that dear old Mr. Drysdale was trying to construct for the Clampetts to keep them in California was that it was a land of opportunity for them, particularly in terms of Jethro’s educational possibilities, leading to advances in his career potential. The episode where this message peaked was the finale of season 4: “Jethro goes to college”.

Through paying sufficient private school tuition fees to get schools to overlook his serious lack of academic ability, Jed had managed to enable Jethro to academically make it as far as graduating from sixth grade. As far as Granny was concerned that was about as far as any young person should expect to go in education, but Jed had heard that not only was college the key to career success but perhaps the key to getting Jethro’s love life started. So they went to talk to Mr. Drysdale about it, looking for advice about how to get Jethro into some sort of college. He and Miss Hathaway proceeded to try to talk them out of this scheme, until Jed turned to Jethro and said, “Maybe we can get ye into one of those schools back home.”

bev hills bankAt the mention of his major client possibly leaving town Mr. Drysdale instantly panics and suddenly becomes far more optimistic about the idea of finding some local college for “the boy”. When the hillbillies leave the office he starts to discuss with Miss Hathaway the possibility of paying some college enough to take Jethro in in spite of his short-comings. She sums up the dilemma by asking rhetorically, “What college in the entire country would corrupt its standards to that extent for mere financial gain?” In the mid-sixties that was still a laugh line. These days it would merely sound naïve, with such institutions obviously being more common than those who would refuse to do so.

It doesn’t take too long, however, before Jethro, driving around the streets of Los Angeles, comes across a second floor window advertising a “business college” on the premises. This basically amounts to a small institute where girls were taught basic secretarial skills of typing, taking shorthand dictation, business telephone answering formalities and the like, intended to turn them into somewhat useful little secretaries. A dialog there just before Jethro walks in is scripted to tell that this school is in desperate need of money to keep from going under. So when, for all his obvious cluelessness, Jethro pleads with them to take him as a student, and in the process starts physically throwing the tuition money Jed had given him at them in the process, they relent and allow him to enroll.

Jethro later speaks of it taking two hours to pick up some of the basic skills they taught him, but in the compressed world of half-hour sitcom time it takes precisely 2½ minutes from the moment Jethro walks into his first class until the dean of the school realizes he is a hopeless case and instructs her assistant to “prepare a diploma” because “Mr. Bodine is going to graduate.” The diploma he receives is actually just a blank sheet of paper, but it is fine enough quality parchment so that it’s enough to make Jethro happy. It’s enough to make the family feel that now that Jethro is a “college graduate” he is qualified to work as an investment manager at Mr. Drysdale’s bank.

BevH330Elly May, meanwhile, is left with a very bitter taste in her mouth concerning her own college adventure. Even though Jed cautions her that she “ain’t got whatcha call the ‘educational background’ Jethro does,” he gives her permission to try to find a college that will take her. She immediately rushes out to dig through the yellow pages, and finds a place for herself at “The College of Judo and Karate”. She too “graduates” on her first day, but not with the same sort of satisfaction as her second cousin. As she relates the experience to Granny,

“I went in this big room with this real thick rug on the floor and the teacher come out wearing his pajamas! And when I told him I wanted to enroll he got madder than a rattle snake with a sore tooth… He commenced shouting and chopping away at me. He even tried to trip me! …so I gave him what fer! Bounced him around that rug like a basketball. I didn’t stop throwing him until he offered to grajiate me. But he didn’t give me no cap and gown. All I got was this skinny old black belt!”

And for some reason this seriously reminds me of how many things about our processes of academic evaluation continue to work nearly 50 years later.

Some kids we pass through the system with minimal effort from both teachers and student –– to match their minimal interests and learning capacities –– just to be rid of them; still giving them enough recognition in the process to keep their powerful parents satisfied, grudgingly admitting to ourselves that we make the education we offer that much less meaningful and more abstract as we do so, but… it keeps us fed. In other students we see incredible signs of natural talent and promise, and we do our best to encourage them at it, but as often as not this ends up being in ways that don’t quite match up with the ideas of prestige that their parents have had in mind, so we just back off and leave it at that. What else can we do at times?

To say that the standards by which we evaluate young people in our schools are somewhat abstract –– not necessarily either a fair assessment of their natural abilities and effort nor the most suitable from of preparation for the life challenges that lie ahead of them –– would be a polite understatement of immense proportions at times. Efforts to fix this problem with a greater emphasis on standardized testing have, obviously to those within the profession, made things considerably worse. We can only hope that it will all come out in the wash; that our investment and encouragement in some will bring them that much closer to realizing the potential we see in them, and that the difficult cases that we end up just whisking through will end up doing relatively little damage to themselves and those around them at subsequent stages in their life before they take it upon themselves to backtrack and learn the necessary thinking skills and working habits which we were not able to teach them, or they find a role for themselves in society where such skills are not necessary. We can only hope that the theoretical dynamics of cultural evolution will eventually take place in our educational institutions: dysfunctional aspects, however nominally prestigious they happen to be, will be seen for what they are and eliminated, and genuinely student empowering and enabling programs are set up in their place. The question is really how bad things have to get and how many types of trial and error the systems have to go through in the meantime. Sadly there’s also the undeniable factor that many of the powers that be really don’t want people to be educated enough to seriously question their authority, or to question the importance of continuing to buy so much of the useless crap they keep trying to sell us. But still we can hope…

I’m not holding my breath though. I’ve seen how absurd ideas and practices have a way of going on for generation after generation. One significant part of the whole Beverly Hillbillies background legend was the way Granny would never admit that the south had lost the “War between the States”, and she had all sorts of alternative historical interpretations in place to support the theory that her side had won. I know plenty of fundamentalists of all different sorts (theistic and atheistic) who are still doing equivalent mental gymnastics to this day. I don’t think any form of education reform will succeed in solving that problem any time soon. How long cultures and sub-cultures built on self-deception can last is not something we can predict with a particularly great level of accuracy. We can only hope that they destroy as few lives as possible while they continue.

But that’s not the worst of it. Not only are some hillbilly values and world views slow to die out; there are a surprising number of anti-intellectual folk in the US that consider such perspectives to be worthy of revival; and those who shamelessly speak out in favor of such absurdities, heroes. It’s sad really, though sort of understandable.  As I was saying though, the best we can hope for is that our education systems, dysfunctional as they are, will progressively improve young people’s capacities to critically evaluate the various antiquated and “radical alternative” value systems they continue to be presented with.

Meanwhile then we can still enjoy the comic value of these alternative perspectives on life, bearing in mind that, as with any joke, when a significant part of the audience takes the comically absurd seriously it ceases to be funny. So get what laughs you can as Rome burns.

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Filed under Education, Freedom, Materialism, Politics, Pop culture, Purpose, Racism, Religion, Risk taking, Social identity

Hallelujahs

A passing thought in as the second or third day of Christmas (depending on how you count) draws to a close here: I have to wonder how Leonard Cohen feels about the Cloverton cover of his classic, “Hallelujah”.  I mean on the one hand I imagine that the increase in his royalty check from this version of his song going viral will be many times more than my annual salary, so I can’t imagine him complaining about it too loudly, but on the other hand it is an out and out rape of the original meaning of the song in question. Cloverton effectively offers those who are incapable of appreciating the poignant and sublime message of the original lyrics an opportunity to sing along with the beautiful melody of the chorus without having any farting idea of what it was meant to be about. How does that really make an artist feel?

cohen hat offOther than the one-word chorus, the only part of the cover that quotes directly from the original lyrics at any length the is the middle of the first verse: “It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift…” but the follow-through from there loses all poignancy. Rather than noting King David’s confused and desperate pursuit of the transcendent (“the baffled king composing Hallelujah”) it becomes an evangelical cliché (“with every breath I’m singing Hallelujah”). It almost completely fulfills the prophecy of the second line of the original version’s first verse: “but you don’t really care for music, do ya?”

The core message of Cohen’s original lyrics is found in the song’s third verse: “It’s not some pilgrim who claims to have seen the light. No, it’s a cold and it’s a very broken Hallelujah.” The Cloverton version, by contrast, is all about a group of young “pilgrims who claim to have seen the light.”

The cover version goes through all the essential core elements of the western Christmas hymn tradition: the failed search for the inn, the shepherds hearing from the angels, the “wise men three” and finally a summary of the passion of the Christ, which contains the most historically and theologically problematic lyric of all: “That rugged cross was my cross too. Still every breath you drew was Hallelujah.” Forgetting about the rife pronoun confusion throughout this verse (you really can’t tell from one second to the next whether “you” is being used to refer to Jesus or fellow believers), the one thing believers really shouldn’t be claiming is to have shared in the process of making Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. This is the essential meaning of “Pelagian” as a label for a particular heresy. Beyond that, in the tale of his very real suffering, Jesus’ words on the cross were not “Hallelujahs” but rather “why have you forsaken me?” and “it is finished.” But the cover version is crafted carefully enough to keep too many people from actually listening to the lyrics in anything like a rational or critical manner it would seem.

It’s not just the complete castration of the song’s original message and the details of the new lyrics that I find mildly disturbing about this cover version; there’s also the video setting, made to look like a pseudo-Irish pub, just stripped of all offensive references to alcohol. You have a crowd of adults of roughly pub-going age sitting around chatting calmly in a sparsely furnished wood paneled room with steamy windows and wall-to-wall shelves that look as though they were meant to hold bottles, but completely empty. On careful examination of the audience shots you discover some people drinking from cans that could contain pretty much anything, and others drinking from ceramic vessels that fall somewhere between coffee mugs and beer steins. But if you take this investigation to the next level you notice that there’s a donut box that intermittently appears on one of the front tables, and in a couple shots they accidentally capture the name “Varsity Donuts” on the windows and pub-style etched mirrors.

This in turn reveals something fascinating about the band in question. Running a web search for “Varsity Donuts” got me nowhere, so I went to the band’s home page to see where in the US they were from, so as to get to the bottom of this mystery. It says there that they are “Manhattan based”. Fine, so what kind of place is Manhattan’s Varsity Donuts? Plug that into a search engine and you find this. Pictures of the shop there leave little doubt that this is where the band shot their video, and that in turn leads to one obvious conclusion: the “Manhattan” that these boys come from is not the most densely commercialized part of New York City, but a little town west of Topeka, Kansas! Not that you’d ever realize this from their poses in generic hipster outfits in front of generic urban concrete walls, but…

Photo by "William H." of Manhattan's Varsity Donuts

Photo by “William H.” of Manhattan’s Varsity Donuts

So rather than normally being a setting for getting people drunk, the video was shot in a place where people go to get an intense junk food sugar buzzes. And rather than being part of some major city’s music scene, we’re talking about about a band from the wind-swept prairie that Dorothy left to go to Oz. From there it’s no big surprise then that the “pub crowd” consists of mostly over-weight and exclusively white people. It seems we have a number of factors pointing towards rather pretentious image building. No out-and-out lies, just images being projected that have little to do what is actually happening. All this focused on marketing a sanitized, white bread version of a song that they clearly “don’t get”. This doesn’t speak very highly of the critical faculties of those who have been writing rave reviews for the video.

But perhaps I’m being a bit too cruel. Musically the cover is actually quite tastefully done. A somewhat imaginative quartet arrangement, going for a predominantly acoustic sound (though the guitarist still needs his wa-wa pedals), featuring a cello in place of bass and a variety of classical percussion instruments in place of a standard drum kit, really works quite nicely with Cohen’s sweet melody, perhaps better than Cohen’s tour band arrangement even. The technique of building musical complexity as the song progresses, from a lone vocalist on an old upright piano at the beginning to an impressively orchestral sounding quartet with everyone in the “pub” singing along at the end, achieves the overall effect they’re aiming for quite resoundingly. Setting aside the inconsistencies between audio and video in building this mini-narrative, it is clear that these young men are talented musicians who are quite capable of drawing in an audience. The lead singer sounds for all the world like a young Cat Stevens, and the band jells behind that vocal style magnificently. All that’s missing is integrity.

The “about” section of Cloverton’s web site starts out trying to build an image of stylistic independence and solid integrity –– a radically indy and radically Christian band fighting to make it without major label support. All I can say is that if such values are important to them, as opposed to being nothing more than cheap, cliché advertising copy, based on this single it would seem they are going at it pretty seriously bass ackwards.

Not that there is anything particularly new or unique about this case in some regards. It actually brings me back to parts of my childhood among “Jesus freaks” who routinely “borrowed” songs like Carol King’s You’ve Got a Friend and Paul Simon’s Bridge over Troubled Water, with the lyrics ever so slightly modified to slip Jesus’ name in every now and again. I remember, on such a basis, being able to relate quite thoroughly to an article I read in some Christian youth magazine in the early 80s complaining about the widespread phenomenon of “Jesus is my girlfriend” songs. Modifying generic love songs so as to speak about “loving God” really isn’t that much of a stretch; in many cases it’s just a matter of trading one disposable cliché for another quite similar one. In American English in particular it’s real easy, in so many ways, to go from singing, “I’m yours, Lord,” to “I’m yours, love,” and back again without terribly many evangelicals noticing the difference.

To break free of such clichés and to build integrity into the Christian/Christmas message in music, you have to start with ceasing to pretend to be something you’re not –– in this case pub-going urban hipsters who are really into what Leonard Cohen has to say with his music –– and it can’t end there. As the pope has pointed out so powerfully in his various messages this year, and as evangelicals should broadly be able to agree, the point of Jesus’ message is to go beyond religious clichés and dig into the messy business of relating to the non-utopian lived experiences of “the poor in spirit” –– those who need to know they’re loved in spite of their misfortunes and failures, and those who cry out for justice in a world where sometimes justice is hard to find. A good second step for Cloverton in finding such integrity then, after dropping the pretenses, would be to actually listen to what Leonard Cohen has to say in his original version of “Hallelujah”.

The first verse there tells of the composer’s struggle to touch something transcendent in his music, much like what we see with Kind David in the psalms. From there the second verse comes to consider the transcendent quality that King David, and many since, have found in erotic connection. For those whose religion is based more or less exclusively on a message of erotic restraint, Cohen’s message here may be rather hard to listen to, but there is still truth to it. Painting the scene of David’s first tryst with Bathsheba, Cohen brilliantly mixes biblical and contemporary motifs to explain the effect this had on the king: “She tied you to her kitchen chair, she broke your throne and she cut your hair, and from your lips she drew the ‘Hallelujah’.” If you want to break out of the standard mold of gospel music, guys, dare to talk about the spirituality inherent in sex, even the sort of sex that the religious establishment fails to properly control. I dare you!

The third verse, as I said above, comes to the central point of the song. After confessing to religious agnosticism and to love having become an area of violent conflict for him (“…all I ever learned from love is how to shoot at someone who out-drew you”), Cohen tells of the “hallelujah” being a cry of anguished searching. And folks, if you can’t honestly accept to the experience of such anguish, and relate without condescension to those who are stuck in it, you have no business trying to present any form of spiritual message to the world, especially the Christian message!

The fourth verse further reinforces this honest message, talking about his familiarity with loneliness and reminding us that the “Hallelujah” experience is not about arches of triumph or victory marches, but rather a very cold and lonely place at times. The fifth verse goes from there into a prayer of sorts: looking back on spiritual experiences of the writer’s youth, crying over the loss of the epiphanies he used to have, but in prayer fondly remembering “how I moved in you, and the holy dove, she was moving too, and every breath we drew was Hallelujah!” (the source of a the problematic lyrical adaptation in the Cloverton version which I pointed out above). From there, in the sixth verse, comes Cohen’s plea for divine mercy of sorts. He stresses that he has given his best efforts, though mostly without success, and that there’s no point in pretending otherwise. This leads to the song’s final sentence, leading into the concluding chorus, of, “even though it all went wrong I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but ‘Hallelujah!’”

Yes, amen, hallelujah! Let us come to the Lord ––  in whatever form we are able to relate to his lordship –– confessing our weaknesses in understanding both God and each other, and in the brokenness to which this brings us let us cry out asking for the connection with what lies beyond us that we haven’t been able to earn. Let’s ditch the kitsch and dare to move towards the heart of the broken human experience in this matter, for it’s only in relating honestly to that that we can find the salvation we long for –– that Jesus came to bring us.

Pussy willows coming out at a grey and rainy Christmas time this year...

Pussy willows coming out at a grey and rainy Christmas time this year…

I write this in the middle of the night after finishing the last of the Christmas celebrating I had scheduled for this year, with nothing resembling the generally dependable “white Christmas” in this part of the world, no presents properly exchanged and overall a very broken Hallelujah to be sung. Yet a “Hallelujah” I still sing, because in spite of my failures, and circumstances the sort I would not normally choose for myself, I still have a sense of being connected with people and things well beyond myself. That is ultimately what I want and need to keep building on in my own broken way in the year to come.

Here’s hoping that this post-Christmas message touches your hearts, and brings you to an honest place of looking at your own world not as you would like to fantasize it to be but how it really is; yet with the hope of not being stuck within the limits of your own skin but being able to be lovingly part of something far greater than yourself. In spite of my limits as a saint and/or a poet I selfishly wish to share that with you. Please pass this general message forward then, for the greater joy of all of us.

057So as part of the same wish, for what remains of them, Happy Holidays.

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Filed under Love, Music, Pop culture, Religion, Risk taking, Sexuality, Spirituality

The Games Some Atheists Play

Some friends have encouraged me not to bother with the Harris Challenge thing any further, for reasons I have already stated, among others. I’m still not sure about that matter, but I do agree that life is too short to waste significant parts of it arguing with those whose minds are made up to disagree with you in their own silly ways. There’s no point in trying to teach everyone out there to think clearly, especially those who have an existential commitment to not doing so. This goes not only for “new atheists” but also for hard core Tea Partiers, for jihadi Muslims, for converts to most cults and for those convinced that they don’t have to worry about the problems they are creating for themselves because of Jesus’ immanent Second Coming.

My primary goals in life as a philosopher and as a post-evangelical theist these days are:
– to establish as much peace and mutual understanding as I can with those around me –– including those who have chosen to believe differently than I have,
– to learn to be more compassionate on others, regardless of their beliefs,
– to try to empower systems of justice against those who carelessly treat other people as disposable convenience items,
– to encourage and enable as many as possible of those who share my basic beliefs to do the same,
– and to encourage responsible and sustainable behavior and cultural practices among those of all different sorts of beliefs.
I honestly believe that is how God would have me live. For those of you who don’t believe in any God, or who believe that your god would have you act according to different sorts of priorities (like “smiting the unbelievers”), I will continue attempting to relate to you according to these principles regardless of our differences.

This creates a certain number of practical dilemmas for me in terms of which arguments are worth diving into and which are worth sitting out. When are there genuine opportunities for building mutual understanding and working together for peace, justice and sustainability; and when are there just conflicts spurred on by those addicted to debate as a contact sport? It’s never going to be a black and white matter, or an easy call for me to make regarding my own personal balance issues.

This came to mind yet again this week when a virtual acquaintance of mine, who is quite the confirmed atheist, floated a link clearly intended to evangelize for his world view –– not so subtly hinting that atheism is the only completely rational perspective on transcendental and moral issues, and those who disagree probably cannot outsmart a goat. How far do I really want to bother with replying to such silliness?

Such a cute mascot for atheism...

Such a cute mascot for atheism…

The only reason I can think of to bother at all is that my virtual acquaintance might really be so naïve as to see this as an honest means of encouraging discussion on the matter rather than as a polemic move more likely to shut down productive dialog on such matters, and I might be able to convince him otherwise. So to unpack this matter for his benefit, with hopes of increasing possibilities for respectful dialogue in the future, I’ll take the trouble this time.

The link in question, which really doesn’t deserve to be promoted, asks a series of 17 questions. The first –– whether or not you believe there is a God –– is the only one not presented in strictly black and white terms. That in itself tells you something about the lack of subtlety to expect here. So OK, yes, I believe there is a God.

Question 2: “If God does not exist then there is no basis for morality.” True or false?

This is already getting silly. Careful consideration shows that there are numerous bases for morality possible. How sustainable and consistent each alternative basis happens to be is a different question. Is there any basis for considering morality to be more absolute than market phenomena which does not postulate either a God or some other transcendental “placeholder” for God? That obviously doesn’t lend itself to being a simple yes or no question, but the quiz-makers obviously don’t want to explore such complications in their beliefs here. In any case, let’s say that this is false.

Question 3: “Any being which it is right to call God must be free to do anything.”

And here we have the old “Can God make a rock so big that he can’t lift it?” shtick. The debate over what is properly meant by “freedom” is going to screw up any abstract conclusions drawn from whatever I answer here, but for purposes of playing along let’s say “true”.

Question 4: “Any being which it is right to call God must want there to be as little suffering in the word as is possible.”

Here we have a proposal that some instinctively think might provide a valid replacement for the idea of God: reducing or eliminating suffering. This I’ve already stated my disagreement with Harris & Co. over. Obviously suffering is nothing to be promoted for its own sake, but that does not make its reduction or elimination the highest of virtues, either for God or for mankind –– since rather obviously the most efficient way of eliminating suffering is to eliminate all who are capable of suffering. By that logic the world would be a better place if life never would have come into existence. So without digging deeper into the inconsistencies this entails for many atheists’ presuppositions here, false.

Question 5: “Any being which it is right to call God must have the power to do anything.”

This is essentially a restatement of question 3. Power and freedom are going to be closer in functional meaning to each other in this context than the various definitions of either freedom or power will be to each other. The same silly question of what sort of rocks God might make demonstrates the trivial potential of this wording as well. But given the naïve character of the question I’ll again let it slide as “true”.

Question 6: “Evolutionary theory maybe false in some matters of detail, but it is essentially true.”

Apparently tossed in to weed out and identify strict fundamentalists. Obviously this lacks definition. Is it asking if random mutation and selection through competition for survival explain everything about the variety of biological life we find in the world today? Does “evolution” as conceptualized here entail its own sense of purpose and direction for biological life? Are we to take this question to include within the concept of “evolution” the various theories of the initial origin of the universe? Well… rather than digging through all the conceptual problems here, I’ll take the charitable view that “evolution” is taken to mean a collection of scientific theories regarding how the world continues to change and develop. Obviously many such theories are in a rather “imperfect state” at present, but I’d be willing to grant that more often than not they reflect an honest pursuit of understanding of the dynamics involved in such matters. So let’s say true here.

“DANGER! No injuries so far, but watch out! Danger ahead!”

So the game is satisfied with my performance, but it’s playfully suggesting that it’s still gonna get me. How amusing.

Question 7: “It is justifiable to base one’s beliefs about the external world on a firm, inner conviction, regardless of the external evidence, or lack of it, for the truth or falsity of these convictions.”

In other words, do I believe in the absolute primacy of a posteriori rational evidence as the final determinant of metaphysical reality? Um… not really. The problems with such a position are rather conveniently papered over in the wording of the question. Good way to catch some people out I guess. I can sort of expect the quiz to draw some unwarranted conclusions about me on this matter, and if I was taking this seriously that might bother me, but no worries on that account.

Question 8: “Any being that it is right to call God must know everything that there is to know.”

Can God still be God if it is possible for him (or her or it) not to be aware of particular details? I shy away from the sort of thinking that reduces God to a rational, mathematical abstraction in these sorts of ways. By that sort of logic it can easily be proven that I don’t exist. But in practical terms a god who can be tricked by clever manipulation and lack of awareness of potential outcomes really isn’t worth worshipping, so for practical purposes let’s I’ll leave this one as “true”.

Question 9: “Torturing innocent people is morally wrong.”

Another hint at the obviousness of believing in utilitarianism as more morally binding than theism: setting an absolute standard of non-suffering that God would have to submit to in order to be truly good, creating at least a paradox regarding God’s freedom and all that. Open questions as to the meaning of “innocence” in this case go without saying. Behind this we have the question of whether belief in morality requires belief in some form of justice inevitably coming to those who cause others to suffer for their own selfish reasons. But such belittled complications aside, no, I do not believe in the justifiability of randomly waterboarding those who have been designated as our enemies, either for pragmatic reasons or based on some theory that “God says we should.” At least in a prima facie way I would agree that it is wrong to torture those who have had no direct role in causing suffering for others at least.  Thus true.

Question 10: “If, despite years of trying, no strong evidence or argument has been presented to show that there is a Loch Ness monster, it is rational to believe that such a monster does not exist.”

Ah, the old “compare God to mythical creatures” shtick, searching for potential contradiction with #7. What are we going to do about this? How are we to explain the persistent beliefs and “superstitions” regarding the “monster” in such a case? Can we take a lack of evidence as evidence of a lack in such cases? Here I would really like to remain entirely agnostic. The possibility of an exotic though now extinct species in the body of water in question is theoretically possible, as is a mass hoax. In practice if I were to go out boating on the loch in question the least of my fears would be that of encountering Nessie, but I don’t believe that there is any strong proof that such a creature either has or has not existed at some point in history. I can pretty much count on the game manufacturing problems on this however I answer. Playing off the abstraction factor of question 7 then, I’ll go with false.

Question 11: “People who die of horrible, painful diseases need to die in such a way for some higher purpose.”

In other words do I believe God gives himself the right to torture people to realize his own ends? Obviously some major complications and qualifications are being papered over, and simple yes or no answers aren’t really going to work here either. To address the proposition itself rather than its implications though, no, I don’t believe that every case of unjust suffering in our world must inevitably have been caused to serve a higher purpose. I believe that some people’s suffering can serve important purposes –– many times in terms of building compassion in others –– but I don’t consider that to be inevitable. Yet in spite of that I still believe that justice is a cause worth pursuing. Conceptualizing this in a way that works both metaphysically and normatively is equally challenging, regardless of what transcendental entities one does or does not believe in. I challenge anyone to disagree with me about that. So anyway, leaving that as false…

Question 12: “If God exists she could make it so that everything now considered sinful becomes morally acceptable and everything that is now considered morally good becomes sinful.”

Yet another variation on questions 3 and 5, this time specifically framed in moral terms, though logically no different and no less trivial in its hypothetical structure. (Can you imagine a quiz like this with no hypothetical questions?) Oh well… let’s go with the same response as to the other silly questions of this sort…

“You’re doing brilliantly! Only five more questions to go and not so much as a scratch so far! Well done!”

Yes, I’m totally flattered…

Question 13: “It is foolish to believe in God without certain, irrevocable proof that God exists.”

Pascal’s prisoner’s dilemma comes to mind, as does my old friend Lyman’s old adage, “For those who do not believe, no proof is possible; for those who do believe, no proof is necessary.” I get the idea that whoever wrote this question doesn’t understand much about the nature of beliefs, etc. I’m going to say “false”.

Question 14: “As long as there are no compelling arguments or evidence that show that God does not exist, atheism is a matter of faith, not rationality.”

Ah, playing with the old equivocation on the meaning of “faith” thing. Then there’s the matter of determining what constitutes a “compelling argument” in such cases. Are we talking about an argument where anyone who does not come to the same conclusion as the one making the argument must inherently be dishonest or stupid not to see things the same way? Or are we talking about an argument which leaves the unbeliever in question feeling like for him personally more things fall into place on a non-believing premise than on a believing premise? I am quite convinced that atheism is a matter of personal ideological choice in pretty much every case I’ve ever encountered. Does that make it a matter of faith? Depends on your definitions. Does that make in non-rational or irrational. I wouldn’t want to make any insulting claims against my friends’ cognitive processes on that one, just as they would not want to make such insulting claims against mine, I’m sure. Thus quite the crap question here. Flip a coin: heads for true… tails: false.

Question 15: “The serial rapist Peter Sutcliffe had a firm, inner conviction that God wanted him to rape and murder prostitutes. He was, therefore, justified in believing that he was carrying out God’s will in undertaking these actions.”

The silliest question this far here –– and that’s quite a significant superlative! He could also claim a conviction that the CIA wanted him to rape and murder the women in question. That wouldn’t make him justified in doing so, nor would it prove that the CIA does not exist. It merely demonstrates that he is a paranoid schizophrenic. Dum-ti-dum-dumb… false.

Question 16: “If God exists she would have the freedom and power to create square circles and make 1 + 1 = 72.”

Postulating yet another hypothetical rock for God to make and lift for the cynic’s amusement. Is there really a point to this silliness? Out comes my coin again… heads this time.

“You’ve just bitten a bullet! In saying that God has the freedom and power to do that which is logically impossible (like creating square circles), you are saying that any discussion of God and ultimate reality cannot be constrained by basic principles of rationality. This would seem to make rational discourse about God impossible. If rational discourse about God is impossible, there is nothing rational we can say about God and nothing rational we can say to support our belief or disbelief in God. To reject rational constraints on religious discourse in this fashion requires accepting that religious convictions, including your religious convictions, are beyond any debate or rational discussion. This is to bite a bullet.”

Yeah, whatever. If I thought this were a sensible question to begin with I’d take such a critique almost seriously.

Question 17: “It is justifiable to believe in God if one has a firm, inner conviction that God exists, even if there is no external evidence that God exists.”

Interesting rhetorical variations in comparison with #14: “no compelling arguments or evidence” vs. “no external evidence” and “inner conviction” in contrast with vague assertions of rational processes for the atheist. If you want an example of the difference between rhetorical implication and philosophical argument, this would be a good place to look. Should I flip again… or just ignore the rhetoric and give the believer the same dignity in choosing his ideological position I would give to an atheist? May as well go with the latter…

“You’ve just taken a direct hit! Earlier you said that it is not justifiable to base one’s beliefs about the external world on a firm, inner conviction, paying no regard to the external evidence, or lack of it, for the truth or falsity of this conviction, but now you say it’s justifiable to believe in God on just these grounds. That’s a flagrant contradiction!”

Oh dear! Whoa is me! Given a choice between considering the structure of the rhetorical attack to have factual significance and looking beyond the silly rhetorical structure to allow for dignified and informed ideological choice, I’ve been found guilty of not realizing the factual implications of the rhetoric being used! I’m so embarrassed… not.

“You have reached the end! Congratulations! You have made it to the end of this activity. You took 1 direct hit and you bit 1 bullets. The average player of this activity to date takes 1.37 hits and bites 1.09 bullet. 576888 people have so far undertaken this activity. Click the link below for further analysis of your performance and to see if you’ve won an award.”

Oh goody goody! I’m smarter than your average bear… or theist. I wonder what I might have won!

“Congratulations! You have been awarded the TPM medal of distinction! This is our second highest award for outstanding service on the intellectual battleground. The fact that you progressed through this activity being hit only once and biting very few bullets suggests that your beliefs about God are well thought out and almost entirely internally consistent.”

Well that’s… might white of you! I’m so glad you almost entirely approve of my beliefs… and I hope that someday you find your own consistent and intelligent way of expressing your beliefs to those who don’t share them…

Meanwhile, I hope that those who are prone to spreading such “games” can see just a little more clearly now their limitations in terms of building sincere dialog. This propaganda exercise doesn’t really stimulate thought so much as reflect a lack thereof regarding significant matters of definition. It vacillates between insulting and condescending with a rather unjustified air of authority, as though only atheists like them can be “real philosophers”.

If you just want to mess around with such games on the same level as automated quizzes which tell you things like “What sort of Jerry Springer guest are you?” or “What sort of Amish teenager are you?” I’d almost be willing to grant it the same sort of mostly harmlessly offensive status… were it not for a couple of factors: First of all those other offensive quizzes are not trying to sell subscriptions to a service to make you a better Amish teenager or Springer guest. But more importantly, I find the reinforcing of a false dichotomy between faith in God and philosophical thinking to be not only distasteful, but harmful to those on both sides of the mythical divide thus established.

You still want to defend the fun and utility of such a game? Not much else I can do for you.

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Filed under Philosophy, Pop culture, Religion, Respectability, Sustainability, Tolerance

Open letter to Daisy

For those of you not familiar with the case, going on two years ago now, one cold winter night two young teenage girls snuck out of the house to go to a party with some older boys from school, and ended up getting raped. One was dumped, undressed and obliviously drunk, in the snow outside her house. She lived to tell of it and to seek justice, but so far the only result of this quest has been that her (widowed) mother was fired from her job, her siblings have been threatened with violence, her family was driven out of town and local terrorists on the side of her rapist(s) burned her family’s house down. Last week she took the trouble to tell her story on line, mentioning how it has, among other things, made her stop believing in God . This is my response back to this deeply wounded girl.  

daisy

Dear Daisy,

First let me say that I’m sincerely sorry for your pain and all of the suffering you and your family have been through. I don’t pretend to know how it feels not only to be raped and treated as disposable, but then to have those who care about you terrorized for caring about you. I have my own problems in life, but I’m not going to pretend that they match up with yours.

By way of introduction all you really need to know about me is that I’m a man roughly three times your age, a school teacher to kids your age in Europe, and I’m currently working on my doctorate in philosophy of religion. What that basically means is that I’m supposed to be some sort of an expert in helping kids work through the question you asked (yourself) repeatedly in your blog about your recent trauma: “Why would a God even allow this to happen?”

Don’t take this as someone trying to defend the idea of God to you. You certainly don’t need that, and if there really is a God (probably best if we leave that question open for the time being) he wouldn’t need someone like me to organize his defense team for him. Think of me rather as one more well-meaning expert of sorts, who in the abstract knows something about what you’ve been through, and in his own particular area of specialization really wants to help if he can. The doctor who treated your vaginal injuries probably didn’t know what it felt like for you, but she/he knew something about how to prevent infection and help your organs to heal. Likewise (I would hope) you’ve had a social worker who probably doesn’t know how it feels to be you still trying to help you to return to something like a normal social life. The same would go the lawyers you’ve talked to, counselors you’ve been sent to and many others. Think of what I have to say as analogous to what they might try to say to help. I know you have been “spiritually wounded” in this series of events and that has left you with some deep and troubling questions. As that’s supposed to be my area of specialty, and as your blog caught my attention, please humor me as I try to offer what little help I can.

First let me say, as you probably know quite well already, your questions are nothing new. In fact they reflect what is probably the oldest and most important questions in the whole Judeo-Christian tradition. There’s an old running joke, with hundreds of variations on line, which sets out to explain world religions in terms of the old adage, “Shit happens.” They always start out by saying that the basic message of Taoism is simply that shit happens, and always end with the basic message of Rastafarianism being “Let’s smoke this shit!” In between, among others, the basic teaching of Judaism is always summarized as, “Why does this shit always happen to US?” There’s quite a bit of truth to that summary. Rather than the existence of unjust suffering being the death of their religion –– and consequently all of the other monotheistic religions in the world –– this question has become the most basic starting point and foundational consideration for their religion, and mine/ours. (I self-identify as a Christian. I know you don’t believe in any God at the moment, but I would assume it is some variation of the Christian God that you have recently decided not to believe in. Am I off by much?)

As you may know, the books of the Bible as we now have them are not arranged between the leather covers in the chronological order in which they were written. It’s a long story that I won’t bother to go into right now, but it is commonly believed among those who make a living investigating such matters that the oldest book in the Bible is the one we call Job, about why this guy who hasn’t done anything wrong goes through all sorts of hell anyway. I’ll come back to that later, but for now suffice to say, historically speaking at least, the problem of unjust suffering is just the starting point for belief in God, not the inevitable ending point for such belief.

But before getting into that, let me say that there are definitely a couple sorts of God beliefs that, based on your experience, you certainly should trash –– two common sorts of ideas about what God is that you should no longer give any credibility to.

First there is the idea of the tribal God: the sort of god who “is on our side” and helps us to “smite our enemies.” As a matter of building social solidarity and getting large groups of people to work together on major projects, almost all major human societies throughout history have had one sort of god or another, or some collection of local gods that they could call on, for this basic purpose. But in spite of how useful such beliefs can be as a team building shtick, and in spite of how much of this sort of belief has worked its way into various forms of American Christendom in particular, the sort of god that people make up to help them distinguish between their own tribe –– “the righteous” –– and everyone else –– “the heathens” –– is more useful to socially powerful jerks like Matt than to those like you who need protection and justice. Don’t be surprised if the sort of God that people make up to reinforce their tribal identities is of no use to you then, and don’t be surprised when some people claim that the Christian God is like that.  I could try to prove that such people are idiots, but rather than bothering with that let me just say that, as a Christian, that’s not the sort of God that I worship.

The other sort of God that you should not bother believing in any more is the sort of magical helper “upstairs” who takes all of the risks, uncertainties and unpredictability out of life. There are a lot of people who become religious because they have a hard time dealing with things being unpredictable and out of their control. For them religion doesn’t really work any differently than superstitious practices like rubbing lucky rabbits’ feet or nailing up horseshoes over doorways and the like. (Two sorts of people who are said to particularly depend on religion for superstitious luck improvement in this sort of way are competitive athletes and sailors.) But it doesn’t really work like that. As the Bible says, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. Good people too can have random bad things happen to them. For instance a preacher friend of mine has a grandson who has been battling with cancer for most of his preschool-aged life. If God were in the business of showing favor to his favorite people and keeping them from experiencing random suffering, why doesn’t he start there? No, life will always involve risky situations. You can limit those risks somewhat by following certain sorts of safety rules and by taking advantage of different forms of technology we have these days, but those things too can only go so far in stopping bad things from happening to good people.

So tossing those sorts of religious habits aside, what is left for you to believe in? Plenty actually.

You used an interesting turn of the phrase: “I lost all faith in religion and humanity.” I think I know what you mean there, but if we were talking face-to-face I’d still ask. I mean, if you were to say that you lost faith in God that might mean that you know longer believe that God exists, but when you say that you’ve lost faith in humanity you obviously know that humanity still exists. Likewise for religion. So maybe you’re saying that you just believe that, even if those things exist, you can’t trust them to “be on your side” any more. Part of that could be that you had rather unrealistic expectations about what humans in general are like. Might the same be said of your expectations regarding religion and God?

If this were a proper dialog I’d wait for your response on that and frame my comments based on how you actually feel about such things. Since we’re not in direct contact I have to sort of make up the next part not knowing if you can relate to what I’m saying or not.

Anyway, your blog has this (old?) picture of you holding a puppy. I’m glad to see you have such a friend. I hope you still have her/him. (A boxer?) My own dog is a Springer Spaniel, and without him I swear I’d be in a mental hospital today! Dogs are far more dependable as friends than people, beyond doubt. But dogs too have ways in which they can’t be entirely trusted. My dog, for instance, knows that he’s not allowed to have pizza, among other things, but if I were to leave him alone in the house with a pizza in a box on the kitchen table, even long enough to go take the laundry out of the washing machine, I could not be sure that he would behave himself and leave my pizza alone. That doesn’t make me love him any less; it just makes me more careful about was sort of chances I give him to do things we’ve agreed that he shouldn’t do.

Perhaps your experiences have, in some analogous way, taught you to be more careful in how you relate to people in general, and in what ways you need to avoid risks with them. Hopefully, as with our dogs, seeing the limits in how much people can be trusted doesn’t stop you from appreciating their value in other ways. The same might even be said of religion for you, but from here I can’t say; that may be pushing it a bit.

But whether through religion or through purely secular therapeutic perspectives on things, in terms of wishing the best for you I hope that you come to believe in two basic principles that are in some ways very, but not exclusively, religious: love and justice. Finding ways of learning to believe in both of these again is key to regaining a sense of your own beauty and of joy in life for the long term. These may sound impossible to believe in at this point, but please hear me out on this.

Justice would be the tougher one for you to believe in just now I’d imagine, so let me just say I believe in justice to the same extent that I believe in biology, and maybe you can too. In my first couple years in high school I had a syrupy sweet lady as a biology teacher; not the kind that any boys had crushes on, but the sort of kindly middle-aged woman that many kids wished could be their mother. As part of her personality she taught the subject in a rather fuzzy sort of way that sort of bothered my rational mind. We’d do an experiment with the different variables in growing pea plants for instance. We saw the difference that varying amounts of sun light, water, soil types, etc. made, but in any given sample group of plants you could never tell which ones would turn out tallest or have the most flowers, and she never tried to explain that to us beyond a sort of naïve assumption that “some things are up to God.”

Physics and chemistry didn’t have that sort of unaccounted variability to them it seemed. Once you knew what the input parameters were and how the system worked, you could predict pretty exactly how each experiment was going to turn out. Those sciences didn’t seem to have the same “slop” to them that biology did. Later I learned that it’s not that simple. If you get down to the microscopic and atomic level –– if you see the exact composition of every molecule within the seed or cell –– you can tell very exactly how it will behave or how big it will grow under given conditions. Biology isn’t actually as “sloppy” a science as it looks from a simple high school level. Likewise physics, when you get down to the sub-atomic level, gets a lot more random, requiring things like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and “Schrödinger’s cat” to make sense of it all. But that’s not important right now.

The point is that when it comes to justice, seeing that in individual cases it doesn’t seem to work the way it should on the surface of things doesn’t prove that there’s nothing to it. Problems of accounting for the slop in the system not withstanding, there really is something to the principles of justice, ethics and morality.

Of course this is not to say that you deserved to be raped or that your family deserved to have their house burned down! Anyone who tries to write off those tragedies as something you “had coming to you” cannot be properly described in vocabulary that teachers are allowed to use. The point is that there is a complex set of dynamics behind such events and a complex set of results that progress from such events, but dismissing it all as totally random doesn’t really help anyone.

Obviously you know in hindsight that you could have reduced your risks by not secretly experimenting with alcohol and not bypassing your older brother’s judgment in this case. No need to beat yourself up any further emotionally over those matters. The more constructive perspective on the justice of the matter at this point is in looking forward. The point now is that Matt in particular, and Maryville and Missouri collectively, cannot escape from “paying for this” on some level. Besides the different variations on the mystical idea that “karma is a bitch” and it’s bound to get them, if not within this life then thereafter (and those shouldn’t be entirely written off), there is the factor that by in practice denying your value as a human being and treating you as disposable, they have seriously discounted their own value as human beings as well, and effectively categorized themselves as disposable. That inevitably will have effects that cannot be ignored. Just as slavery and racist abuse throughout American history have seriously messed up not only the abused peoples but the abusers themselves, for Maryville to accept the treatment of teenage girls as disposable sexual objects cannot help but seriously mess up the individuals involved and the society there as a whole. Ultimately it has the effect of seriously reducing, if not eliminating, their capacity to love and to be loved, which leads to the other point I wanted to make.

At the risk of getting all fuzzy-wuzzy in ways you totally cannot relate to at this point (and sappier than my high school biology teacher to boot), love is something vitally important for all of us. Love is about more than sex and genetic survival and all that; it is about recognizing that my importance is not limited to what’s happening within my skin. I am, as a person, important to others, and they are important to me. I matter to people (and to my dog) and they matter to me. Love is about seeing others as more than tools for your physical enjoyment and competitive self-promotion. Sex, at its best, can be one of the ultimate expressions of love; though sex as you’ve experienced it is pretty much the polar opposite of love. But in spite of that, love is particularly worth believing in for you.

Believing that we can find these sorts of connections with others is a huge part of what makes life worth living. Lacking a capacity to connect with others in these sorts of ways is actually the basic essence of what hell is all about. In that regard your rapist certainly deserves to be in his own form of hell, and there is every reason to believe he is. No one can do what was done to you and still have a capacity to connect with other people as people. He may be admired for his athletic skill or for his family’s social position, but he can never know what it is like to matter to others as a person if in practice he treats other people as disposable. Through his actions then his life has come to mean nothing. Likewise a community or society which thinks it is OK to treat certain people as disposable is more than likely to become hell for most of its members. This is what turns countries into what are known these days as “failed states.” In the same sense Maryville may well be a “failed community” already. Those are more common than you realize.

In fact as the emotional wounds from your trauma heal, in your case it should be relatively easy to believe in love again: After the whole #justice4daisy campaign there are thousands if not millions of people around the world who feel your pain and see your value as a person as important. As you have inadvertently come to stand for thousands of other young women who are to one extent or another treated as disposable sexual objects, you must be acutely aware of the fact that you matter. Let the sheer volume of that love you are receiving soak in for a minute or two. Through your pain you have become important to many of us who will probably never have a chance to meet you even, not just as a symbol, but as a person. That has to be a good thing for you.

The whole question of love and importance becomes far more difficult for girls who go through variations of your same trauma every day in many countries around the world –– from victims of sex tourism in Thailand, to child brides in Arabic countries still, to those raped as an act of war in the continuous conflicts happening in much of Africa today. It is much harder for me to imagine how love and justice can come into their lives than to see how it could come into yours.

I don’t want to trivialize any young rape victim’s suffering by saying, “Don’t worry. It will all work out.” For many I know it won’t. That’s where I comfort myself by believing in a form cosmic justice that lies beyond the limits of this life, and where I keep working on doing what I can to promote justice and caring for others within this life as well. I haven’t definitively solved the problem of unjust suffering. I’m quite sure no one has. I can only keep working on doing my best to reduce it in ways that still enable life to go on for all of us.

Let me close by coming back around to that oldest book in the Bible I was talking about. The introduction chapter in the book of Job is actually the silliest part of the story: How could we imagine God still being God if he would intentionally choose to let a good man suffer excruciating agony of all sorts just to settle a silly random bet with the devil? Forget about that part for the time being. The important part is to acknowledge that Job really didn’t do anything to deserve to suffer. From there the thing is to look at the series of debates which make up the core of the book.

Job has three peers who come to see his situation and try to help him figure it out, all assuming that somehow he must have done something to deserve it. First we have this guy named Eliphaz, who responds to Job’s statement of depression by telling him that God is just and justice always works, so he should just pray about it and comfort himself in trusting God. Job basically responds to him by saying, “No offence, but it really doesn’t work that way. If you think there’s some justice in this then show me how it works.” Then comes a this guy named Bildad, whose basic message is that you shouldn’t pretend that you’re in a better position to say how things work than God is, and if you’re a good guy God will always put things right in the end. To him Job goes on a rant and says that he fully understands how much wiser and more powerful God is than him, but that doesn’t really solve the question of why this shit keeps happening to him. Then comes the third one, Zophar, saying, “How dare you mock God and claim that you’re right and he’s wrong on this one?!” To this Job basically says, “You’re not the only one to give me that sort of crap. People who have it easy always treat those going through rough times with contempt. But besides joining in to what the crowds have to say, what do you really know about it?”

From there they each take a couple more rounds going after Job, with increasing antagonism as things progress. Eliphaz says that Job’s mouth is getting to be the cause of his problems. Bildad says that Job in turn is not being respectful enough towards their perspectives. Zophar finds a particularly long-winded way of saying, “I feel rather insulted here, so to hell with you!” Job gives abuse back to each of them as good as he gets. Finally they all give up on trying to change each other’s minds about things.

That’s when a kid about your age, named Elihu, gets involved in the discussion. Elihu had waited to talk because young guys weren’t supposed to interrupt older men in their debates in those days, but he found it particularly frustrating that Job was trashing the whole idea of justice and that his three “friends” were ready to attack him without really having any grounds for their accusations. So when all of the others are done talking he lets them have it. After deconstructing their arguments (for 5 chapters) he basically points out that nothing we can do as people would really have that big an effect on God one way or the other. Rather than worrying about what we can do for God, and what God is ready to do for us in return, the point of religion should be to look at the incredibly majesty and mystery we see in the world around us and to ponder the wonder of being able to connect with something that incredible.

After Elihu’s speech then a huge tornado comes up and God starts speaking to these guys from the tornado, saying basically, “You know, the kid’s right.” It then goes on with 4 chapters’ worth of itemizing the marvels of the universe that make people and our problems seem pretty tiny by comparison.

The ending of the story is almost as problematic as the beginning: God tells the three friends that they owe Job a pretty massive apology, so they follow through with that, killing a truckload of livestock before God and Job to say how sorry they are. Job then forgives them and asks God to forgive them, and after that God makes Job all rich and successful again… as though, in spite of everything that was said in the debate, that would be what really matters. But some people need to see that sort of thing in order to find what God has to say before that as important. Such is life.

So what can you take from this long speech? (Sorry. Sometimes I talk too much: teacher’s occupational hazard.) Hopefully that you have a value that doesn’t depend on you being a “winner” in any sense. Your importance doesn’t depend on being the prettiest or the sexiest or the most athletic or the smartest even. Your value is based on your being able to connect with something greater than yourself –– being loved and being able to love in return. For all your sufferings, that principle is still worth believing in. Many religious people fundamentally miss the point on that one, so they might try to give you the same sorts of messages that Job got from his “three friends.” You may want to avoid such people if you can. But if you can find people who really “get” the message of Jesus –– about being able to love God and each other in spite of all our problems –– you might find their company and support quite helpful.

Whatever else happens, I hope you do come to believe in love and justice again in the aftermath of your tragedy, Daisy. I hope the same goes for Paige and for all others who suffer great travesties of justice in our world. Speaking not only for myself, but for the thousands who still believe in God and who have been touched by your story, our prayers are with you.

David Huisjen

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In Search of the Sweetest Sorrow

E. H. Sothern &  Julia Marlowe in Romeo & Juliet-The Balcony Scene-Photo-B&W-Resized“Sweet sorrow” –– the random comment Shakespeare gave to Romeo about his feelings at leaving Juliet once they had established direct communication about their mutual crush (sorry, it’s hard for me to take their “epic love” more seriously than that, despite the tragic extent they took things to) –– is often taken to be the epitome of an oxymoron –– the basic archetype for such later linguistic absurdities as “business ethics,” “military intelligence” and “Microsoft Works”. On further contemplation, however, to me it makes perfect sense for sorrow to be sweet. Let me unpack that a bit for you.

As I begin this essay the subject for the day in the photo project I am playing along with this month is “sweetest”. I’m trying to avoid the cliché of submitting some cheesy would-be advertising photo of something sugary, so I’ve been thinking about how I might approach the theme in a way that can visually communicate something deeper than that. What is the true essence of all of the different things we take for sweetness? What makes a baby’s smile sweet? What makes the smell of a fresh spring meadow sweet? What makes a lover’s embrace sweet? What do we really mean by this word? I don’t subscribe to my summer school professor’s school of thought in saying that when a word has so many and such varied meanings we should take that as evidence that it has no meaning at all. But can we really get down to the very essence of the concept of sweetness in a way that we can identify some superlative for the category?

StrawberriesLet’s go back to the literal meaning of the term: sweetness is the pleasurable sensation sent to the brain by a certain collection of sensors on the tongue which are designed to detect the presence of sugars in our food. Sensing sweetness is a matter of simple evolutionary advantage: being able to guess with reasonable accuracy, without necessarily even being conscious of the process, which foods have the greatest likelihood of providing our bodies with readily burnable fuel. The positive sensation of tasting something sweet is nature’s way of telling us, for instance, that strawberries are likely to be more useful to our bodies than rowanberries as a source of energy. There are plenty of less sweet foods that our bodies can convert into sugars (and then fats) quite readily, but in evolutionary terms the instant-burn capacity of sugars is very useful for our bodies to be able to identify, and for us to be attracted to.

summer school 218Figuratively speaking then, sweetness might be said to be that which stimulates a positive emotional sensation that we can associate with being energized: something which increases our capacity to go forward, to face challenges, to overcome obstacles, to thrive in life. The “sweet” is that which fuels our passion for life and keeps us from giving up.

The analogy also seems to work in the sense that many things we experience as sweet don’t necessarily “work” in terms of actually providing us with emotional energy to get stuff done; they just give us a good feeling like they might have increased our energy levels, even if they haven’t. The world of media marketing contains many forms of “artificial sweetener” in our day-to-day experience. Or we could say that much of the “sweet” emotional stimuli we experience do not translate into a healthy capacity for action. Without going too far into psychological theory on the matter, this involves the media in question hyper-stimulating our immediate emotional responses purely for the sake of having these emotional responses immediately hyper-stimulated. In other words some films, video games and concert experiences do to our emotional response centers in the brain what triple chocolate fudge cake does to the taste buds on the tongue: blasting them with more stimulation than the rational mind knows what to do with as an end unto itself, entailing a certain number of health risks in the process. Just as that intense chocolate cake experience doesn’t improve one’s capacity for athletic performance, the “sweet” experiences of media events don’t really make us more productive workers, better friends to those around us or more loving family members; they just give us a sort of abstract thrill for its own sake.

In the commercialized society that we live in the “sweetest” of manufactured consumer experiences are given to the rich and dangled like a carrot in front of the poor: a positive incentive to keep them plodding onward. Or in many cases it’s more sinister than that: These addictive hyper-stimulating experiences are given to whoever wants to try them, who might someday have something to offer in return, in exchange for surrendering their freedom and entering into a cycle of debt. The poor are not encouraged to wait for gratification, just surrender their freedom in order to get it. In fact poverty these days can be defined in three essential ways. In ascending order of severity:
–          Lack of “normal” access to the “sweet things” in life,
–          Lack freedom due to debt,
–          Survival risks due to a lack of means to pay for health care and other basic needs, frequently blamed on their addiction to “sweet things” beyond their means.

In some ways this brings to mind the paraphrased version of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism that I’ve been teaching to 13-year-olds (as part of the world religions section of Finland’s national religious education curriculum) this month: 1) Life is a process of suffering. 2) You suffer in life because of your desires. 3) By overcoming desires and attachments in life you can overcome suffering. 4) Following the rest of the teachings of the Buddha can enable you to overcome desires and attachments. In some ways I deeply respect their ethic of escaping from the addictive behaviors we all tend to drift into and the pain we cause ourselves in the process. I would also agree with their assessment that when you open the door to life’s sweetness you also open the door to all of life’s sorrows. But I would flip the moral of that connection the other way around: Rather than rejecting life because it hurts too much, I recommend finding the sorts of sweetness in life that make the sorrows of life truly worthwhile.

buddhaThe best word we have for that process of embracing life in all of its messiness and painfulness, because in spite of those things there is something truly magnificent about life as such, is thriving. In this regard the reason I have for remaining a Christian rather than converting to Buddhism is because, in spite of all the sorrow I’ve experienced in life, I still would rather thrive with all my sorrows than attempt to escape from the thriving that causes them. In fact one of the messiest and most painful parts of life as we know it is one of the things that Buddhism, in spite of its escapist emphasis, still strongly recommends embracing: compassion. This word is usually used to designate the (theoretically) less self-interested end of the spectrum of emotional experiences we designate as love. All of them make life painful and uncontrollable; all of them play an important role in making life worthwhile.

Thus the sorrows associated with love –– embracing the pains and lack of control that go with forming connections with others, in spite of all of the others’ problems –– are the sweetest, most energizing thing we can find in life. Feeling shared sorrow somehow helps us know (or at least believe) that there’s something real in the connection, strengthening us in turn to work for the good of others, and producing the most important possible sense of happiness that we can experience within ourselves in the process. In short, there is nothing sweeter than the right kind of sorrow. If you don’t know what I’m talking about you really need to try it more.

This is not to say that all sorrow should be seen as sweet. Some sorrow is caused by our own stupidity, or by attempting to connect with people who are not capable of such connection; of loving us in return. This is not to say that feeling compassion for those who themselves have no capacity for compassion is necessarily a waste; it just means that hurting ourselves through building up expectations that by loving we can make people and things different from what they are can be a wasteful sort of suffering to put ourselves through. It is the same as many mundane forms of suffering that we go through due to our own stupidity at times: the suffering of food poisoning from eating improperly stored or preserved food, the suffering caused by car accidents when people don’t pay sufficient attention to basic safety precautions, the suffering that goes with frostbite or pneumonia from not dressing warmly enough on Arctic winter days, etc., are all fundamentally wasted forms of suffering. The only use they have, besides potentially eliminating you from the gene pool, is to teach you not to do the sort of things which caused you to suffer in such cases. Sometimes, however, it’s difficult to draw the line between learning from our mistakes and daring to love in spite of knowing that it will cause you pain, and just being stupid.

Highway Car WreckSo fully recognizing the risks involved, but knowing that without love life becomes largely meaningless, I continue my quest in search of life’s sweetest sorrows. Some particularly sweet sorrows that I’ve experienced thus far in life –– besides the romantic sort and those having to do with parenting –– have been the ones I’ve experienced as a teacher in helping young people adjust to the challenging process of becoming adults; or those I’ve experienced in various aspects of interfaith dialog, helping those of differing religious backgrounds recognize that people who don’t share their convictions are still worth befriending and caring about. Then there are the sorrows that I have shared with millions of others throughout the world regarding victims of nature’s or humanity’s cruelties, ranging from the Haitian earthquake victims to child soldier of sub-Saharan Africa to girls in Pakistan who wish to get an education beyond what religious extremists there feel is proper for them. I really don’t want to avoid susceptibility to these sorrows, as they draw out and bring together all that is sweetest and most noble about us as humans in general.

Malala - the iconic girl whose suffering the world in now particularly anxious to share and end.

Malala – the iconic girl whose suffering the world in now particularly anxious to share and end.

Obviously we each have personal limits as to how many such sweet sorrows we can imbibe in how deeply at any given time. Just as obviously, part of the point in consuming such sweet sorrows is to work on overcoming the causes for them. Romeo’s “sweet sorrow,” for instance, was a matter of motivating him to overcome the obstacles to him and Juliet being able to remain together. The sweetness of my sorrow regarding girls in Pakistan who bravely desire an education involves a hope that through a global focus on the problem we might be able to overcome it. Both hopes might be equally tragically naïve.

We are also prone to hunger for the sort of sorrows which, ironically, don’t draw us too far out of our comfort zone –– sorrows that help us feel we are part of a virtuous effort to overcome evils that we actually had no part in. It is easier to embrace the sorrows of those who suffer from natural disasters than it is to embrace the suffering of those whose poverty is compounded by our own greed and/or carelessness. It is easier for Americans to embrace the sorrow of children being denied access to clean water, healthy food and education in Pakistan due to tensions caused by religious extremism than it is for them to embrace the sorrow of children being denied access to clean water, healthy food and education in Detroit due to the collapse of the industrialist economic infrastructure there. It is easier for Europeans to embrace the plight of child soldiers in Africa than to embrace the plight of suicidal teenagers in their own countries. Confronting the causes of others’ suffering within ourselves is far more difficult than confronting causes of suffering for which we cannot hold ourselves responsible. In terms of the basic analogy here though, the latter form of sorrow may be sweeter, but the former is probably more nutritious for us.

Detroit public schools: a form of suffering Americans find more difficult to connect with for some reason.

Detroit public schools: a form of suffering Americans find more difficult to connect with for some reason.

I cannot claim to have mastered the art of selecting the sweetest forms of suffering yet. I’m actually not entirely sure that such mastery is possible. I am sure, however, that suffering is part of the sweetness of life, and struggling to avoid suffering entirely cuts off all possibility for human thriving as well. I would encourage each of you to fully embrace the sufferings that enable us to thrive as humans, and I would ask any of you who has especially profound insights as to how to find the best forms of suffering for each of us to please share them with me. Let’s keep doing the best we can from there.

 

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Rebranding

Every time I go in or out of Helsinki I pass the Nokia international headquarters in the southeast corner of Espoo. I didn’t have any business in Helsinki on Tuesday (September 3) so the first time I saw the building after the sale of its guts to Microsoft had been announced on Tuesday morning was late Wednesday afternoon. It was sort of surreal feeling.

vallila, etc 246The structure of this “iconic” headquarters is such that in certain light conditions the steel framed glass outer walls give the impression of construction scaffolding, of the sort that encases the significant number of buildings that are continuously being put up, structurally repaired, resurfaced or gutted in the Helsinki region at any given time. It’s hard to say which of those processes is the most apt analogy for Nokia this month. People might or might not continue to work in Espoo on designing phones for their new masters in the state of Washington; that remains to be seen.

Sitting in front of me on the mostly empty bus was a fellow randomly playing with his iPhone. I assume he was texting to whomever he planned to meet when he got to wherever he was going; I didn’t pay much more attention than that. I glanced out to consciously read the sign over the plywood encased construction area along the new subway/metro/underground route they are constructing outside of the now former Nokia headquarters. Sometime next year or the following the bus I was on will cease to run that route, and travelers will start to go on a faster, cleaner running, high speed underground trains instead. The sign at the construction area there between the Nokia building and the motorway says that they are putting in a service tunnel entrance, not a passenger station there. I wonder when they made that official decision.

vallila, etc 237So it’s official now: the Nokia phenomenon has come and gone in the time I’ve lived in Finland. I wrote last year about Finnish history thus far being roughly divisible into the Mannerheim era, the Kekkonen era and the Nokia era, with a bit of uncertainty about what might come next. That has now been “announced in church” as the Finnish idiom says. The uncertainty of it all is a bit intimidating.

My hindsight perspective on “what went wrong” for Nokia is simpler than most: Steve Jobs. This patron saint of user-friendly electronics, as his life’s last thrust to put another “ding in the universe,” reshaped people’s expectations of what their little pocket computer/phones were supposed to do. Nokia had some interesting R&D going into similar ideas, but they weren’t really ready for Jobs’ swan song when it came. Nokia made phones that could pretend to be personal computers; Apple started making functional mini personal computers that also worked as phones. Sometimes image is everything. Now without Jobs around to further bend their fenders, Nokia’s cell phone division might have made a significant comeback on its own; but now that they’ve been commandeered by Apple’s arch-rival, Microsoft, such speculations have become entirely hypothetical.

Microsoft is a brand which says to people “familiar, functional software for generic computers”. Nokia is a brand which says “sleek and dependable basic communication devices”. It’s hard to guess which, if either, of those names will go on whatever new sorts of phones this new joint-venture might start coming out with. They may have to create an entirely new brand to capture the imaginations of the clients they are targeting, sort of like what Toyota did when the invented the Lexus line. What this new brand might stand for, beyond “imitation iPhones,” remains to be seen.

vallila, etc 118Nokia is not the only aspect of Finnish society (and yes, more than just a corporation, Nokia has been an aspect of Finnish society in many senses, and while the grieving process continues it remains so) that is now contemplating rebranding. A friend of mine in the mid stages of theology studies in the University of Helsinki was griping this week about an absurd required-subject lecture about “personal branding” that he had to attend. Since Finnish educational institutions, from kindergartens all the way through to the university, are being told that they have to seriously consider their “brand status” these days, of course they are passing on that pain to all of their teaching staff, who in turn are passing it on to all those they are teaching. The further up the academic ladder one goes, the more permissible it becomes to pass this sort of abuse on to one’s students.

This subject also came up in the university summer school course I took last month, under the supervision of a new professor from the department of teacher education in the University of Helsinki. The fact that I was rather unimpressed with this particular professor’s skills was a rather poorly kept secret; but he and I did agree quite strongly on three things in this regard: 1) Finland currently has a very strong brand in education. 2) This brand may be somewhat endangered, as the means by which it has come about may be fading (though he and I disagreed about what those particular fading sources of brand strength may have been). And 3) His department has very little to offer in terms of safeguarding the strength of the brand. Meanwhile, Fred, the professor in question, is very optimistic about the value of his own personal brand, but rather fuzzy about what this personal brand value is based on, or what he has to offer –– besides an abundance of published academic articles that no one reads, and access to an international sewing circle of somewhat like-minded individuals. To say that he’s not doing the University of Helsinki’s brand any good is a substantial understatement.

Irja+Askola,+Helsingin+piispa+116348It may or may not be coincidental that the Lutheran bishop of Helsinki came out with her own statement about branding this week, or at least so one tabloid has to say. The sensationalism-prone Iltalehti claimed on Wednesday that Bishop Askola had given an interview to the daily business digest Kauppalehti (which the latter publication’s web site shows no record of) in which she seriously critiques the institutional church that she represents for screwing up Christian identity by making it a judgmental brand. The brief article goes on to say that the bishop is having a hard time adjusting to the slow pace of change within the church, that Christian identity –– based on justice, mercy, caring, and prioritizing the good of the community –– is as appropriate for our age as for any, and that she remains firm on the principle that the church’s message is mercy, not judgment.

Assuming that this report credibly represents the bishop’s thoughts on the matter, it would seem that she is continuing to work on distinguishing her own personal brand from that of Finland’s Minister of the Interior Päivi Räsänen’s brand –– the latter emphasizing the rejection of “inappropriate” forms of sexuality. (For my own take on this matter see my last blog for July this summer.) These women have clearly agreed to disagree, each hoping that she can win over a majority within the church to her own position, somewhat marginalizing the other in the process, all the while claiming that the church is big enough to allow for both of their positions within it. This raises the question, is either woman more guilty of abusive brand manipulation than the other? Or perhaps more importantly, if their mutual brand does not provide any definitive identity markers regarding the sort of major questions on which they disagree, what good is it? If the Evangelical Lutheran brand doesn’t actually say anything about any moral questions over which reasonable people may disagree, and if it refuses to distinguish between insiders and outsiders in any meaningful way, what remaining significance does the brand have?

Within Finland’s Lutheran church brand confusion is a fairly serious issue. When it comes to anything resembling regular worship (not exactly their brand’s strong suit) there are actually many sub-brands that mean more to “consumers” than the overall brand. One of the most successful sub-brands has been the Tuomas messu or “St. Thomas Mass,” which got started in the late 1980s –– just as Nokia was establishing itself as a mobile phone maker –– in the church in Helsinki dedicated to Mikael Agricola. This “mass” format combined a lot of safe feeling “high church” ritual and liturgical elements with various forms of contemporary music –– including everything from Taize worship music to rock and roll variations on traditional hymns –– and an open invitation to those who didn’t necessarily believe particularly strongly, to come up with a pretty successful combination in its day.  But now, 25 years later, the distinctive appeal of the Tuomas messu brand has pretty well died out. Its image is that of a bunch of older middle aged folks who are trying to act spiritual, deny their aging processes and find a sort of weekly mutual acceptance. Young people of my sons’ generation who are interested in spiritual experiences don’t find it to be their worship of choice any more. I still go to these at times, but I don’t always find them particularly inspiring, or comfortable even. Sometimes the more traditional forms of Sunday morning worship feel less awkward these days.

So with that brand pretty close to dead, I heard by way of my sons last year that “the new thing” is the mid-week Agricola messu, in the same traditional church building where the Tuomas messu system got started. The Agricola messu has the same basic ethos as its older sister, just with more “updated” effects to appeal to a new generation of religious skeptics: smoke machines and a computerized concert lighting effect board, more English used in their worship music, younger priests leading the events, trying to dress like hipsters while displaying their “dog collars” to identify their role; shorter sermons, clearer and lighter weight “therapeutic” aspects to the ritual.

The lighting effects that the "Agricola messu" brand is shooting for.

The lighting effects that the “Agricola messu” brand is shooting for.

I went to one of these gigs last winter to check it out, and I was neither overly impressed nor overly bothered by it. This week I got a notice that as part of the orientation time for new theology students at the university a bunch of them were going to attend this mass together, so I thought I’d give it another shot. (That was actually where I was headed as I passed the Nokia headquarters by bus late on Wednesday afternoon.) It turned out to be a significant disappointment. Getting warmed up for the first time after their summer vacation, the whiz-bang special effects special effects system appeared to have some bugs stuck in it. The music this time seemed overly ambitiously arranged, but the band was noticeably under rehearsed. But most distractingly, the majority of the participants this time were teenagers who clearly were only there because they needed to rack up a given number of church attendances over the course of the year to be officially confirmed as church members this fall. So the atmosphere was one of a hall full of junior high students restlessly waiting to collect their required signatures from the priests and get out of there. The whole thing was played out at a volume loud enough to cover up the drone of these semi-voluntary participants, who seemed to be chatting with each other the whole time, and as soon as the Eucharist portion of the ritual was starting to wind down the background noise began to rise, with kids preparing to jockey for position to get their attendance cards signed by priests so they could leave as soon as possible. All I could think was, here goes another ambitious attempt at religious rebranding down the drain.

vallila, etc 119Brands can indeed be disposable commodities. When I was a bar tender I learned that certain breweries would regularly introduce new beers onto the market, with all sorts of advertising fanfare, and then pull them from the market a few months or years later with no particular regrets. The idea was to give consumers something new to be fascinated with for whatever little time that fascination might last –– nothing more than that. Brands come and brands go; blessed be the name of the market.

Some brands can be worth protecting on a longer term basis though. Back in the 1980s, when I first came to Finland I was working for McDonalds, and I remember reading in one of their in-house propaganda magazines about how the corporation had cleaned house disenfranchised their major French franchisee earlier in that decade, and they were optimistic about having rebuilt their brand image within that country with a new, more reliable set of operators and a more “culturally sensitive” branding approach there. I guess they’ve been happy with the results since. Of all of the problems with the McDonalds brand these days, lack of conformity to corporate standards in Europe doesn’t seem to be one of the major ones. Whatever else can be said about the McDonalds brand –– and I’d have plenty to say against it –– they are remarkably effective at defending it and keeping it consistent from country to country. This level of corporate discipline and standardization management is the primary reason why McDonalds is much more successful in Europe than Burger King, for instance. Thus the McDonalds brand, like a McDonalds cheeseburger, is something that lasts for years and years, showing only subtle changes as it ages. Some would consider that to be a marketing ideal; I have mixed feelings about the matter.

Is success really to be measured by the volume of quick fixes and disposable commodities which can be sold under a succession of given brand names? In some ways it is undeniable that this is the operational standard that industrialized economies operate according to. In other ways hope remains that we can learn to live beyond these sorts of wasted lives and liquid love that Zygmunt Bauman speaks of in his books of those names. We hope to be part of something more lasting, more permanent than just the ebb and flow of temporary sources of emotional satisfaction distributed under various brand names. Sometimes we turn to rituals for ritual’s sake as an emotional safeguard against this, not realizing that these rituals too are in their own right branded commodities in an economy of branded commodities. A greater hope lies in finding some form(s) of “true love” as means of connecting with something beyond ourselves, but for that pursuit brands, it turns out, are fundamentally useless. Yet on a more superficial level we continuously use our own image identifiers to “brand” ourselves in our attempts to gain customers, partners and friends of various sorts. Few of us can be secure enough in our lasting relationships to escape from this sort of personal marketing culture.

angry bird perfumeIt is perhaps particularly ironic that the newest iconic Finnish brand these days, setting up shop in the section of southeastern Espoo that Nokia will no longer be calling home,  is “Angry Birds” –– based on a computer game of the simplest possible sort, designed to be easily installable on any sort of “smart phone” or PC. The idea of the game is to slingshot these little avian attitude bombs at a set of temporary structures in which a group of pigs are hiding, eliminating as much of the structures and as many of the pigs as possible with the birds at your disposal. This silly little pastime has captured the public imagination enough where there are now candies, soft drinks, cosmetics, fashion accessories and playground equipment being marketed on the basis of this brand. The whole concept of trying to build lasting economic hope on such a self-consciously disposable premise boggles the mind; but for the moment it seems to be working, so no one wants to say anything.

Meanwhile I struggle on with the process of rebuilding my own brand. Having rather limited success in promoting Finnish style secondary school philosophy teaching and “values education” in general for the English-speaking world, and not having discovered any significant new markets for my skills during my African adventure last year, I’m now working on getting into a routine of marketing myself as a “doctoral researcher in philosophy of religion”. Ideally within this role I’d like to help people discover more permanent sources of value for their own lives. In practice though this probably has more in common with “Angry Birds” than I’d care to admit. When I’m done figuring out how to use this role to knock down as many of the pigs’ hiding places as possible we’ll see where it gets me.

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Postmodern Prefixes and Postscripts

I’m still in a season of correcting tests and grading essays as the major component of my working week. In this process this weekend I’ve run across a number of essays in which the expression of moral positions is somewhat weaker than I would hope for, which conclude with the words, “but that’s just my opinion.” As we’re talking about 15-year-olds here, I can cut them a certain amount of slack on this one, but I can say that even at that age no one gets a higher grade for adding that qualification.

There are a number of variations on this qualification that are commonly used these days, however, which have varying impact on the impression of intelligence they give:

  • “As near as I can tell…”
  • “As far as I know…”
  • “As I see it…”
  • “In my (humble/honest) opinion…”
  • “It seems to me…”
  • “Your mileage may vary.”

Most of those have become common enough in on-line discussions to have been reduced to acronyms already.

One time some years ago, in the days before Facebook and IRC groups even, I was at this international student conference where, in informal dinner table conversation, I used the expression “as I see it” (or something to that effect), and one of the other fellows at the table smiled and referred to my expression as “the postmodern prefix”. His implication was that there is a certain epistemological and moral risk involved in qualifying absolutely everything as relative to one’s personal viewpoint, and the early 90s buzz word of “postmodernism” seemed to be an attempt to do just that.

In order to completely escape from such a cycle of moral and epistemological relativity, however, we have to establish something as our unchanging, eternal standard for moral truth. There’s a word for that too: fundamentalism. Anyone who believes that they have found the final, eternal key to absolute truth –– which sets THE standard which all other claims to truthfulness must appeal to in order to be legitimized –– is a fundamentalist with regard to that particular position. Most fundamentalists arrive at their understanding of absolute truth as the result of believing in some particular brand of religious revelation or another, but not all of them. There are many non-religious people who get a sense of epistemological and/or ethical vertigo if there isn’t something that they can “just know that it’s true”, and so they lay a claim to belief in “science,” in some vague sense of the word, as the key to all truth and knowing.

Fundamentalism has become something of a curse word in modern society, and for good reason. People who believe that they hold the final understanding of truth, and that this justifies any and all actions they might take against all those who would challenge their understanding of truth, regardless of what that understanding of truth is based on, tend to be very dangerous people. To point out fundamentalist tendencies among those who hold foundational beliefs that you disagree with is one of the most overused forms of political polemic these days. So does the 15-year-old who concludes a weak essay with the words “that’s just my opinion” deserve credit for at least taking a stand against some form of fundamentalism that may have been trying to suck him in? To put it in ironic terms, in my opinion no, he doesn’t. Can I justify my grading criterion here without setting myself up as some sort of fundamentalist? I hope so. Let’s see.

In autumn of 2010 I went to a TEDx event where we watched a live video stream of Melinda Gates, among other people, talking about their visions for saving the world, and each of us was asked to pose for a mug shot holding a statement of what sort of Utopian future we would like to work our way towards. I still abide by the one I wrote that evening: “In our future all children will be taught to stop and THINK about the difference between FACTS, OPINIONS and MYTHS, and duly respect all of them!” I believe that there is a definitive difference between these three categories, that all of them are valuable, and that the differences between them should be respected.

My official Utopian vision

Working through those backwards, a myth is a narrative that isn’t necessarily true in a historical sense, but which provides those who believe in it with a sense of identity and moral direction. One of the most powerful myths I know of these days is the one that President Obama was not really born in Hawaii: that it was either in Kenya or the Philippines, depending on which conspiracy theory tastes best at any given moment. The point here is that there is something about the president’s identity that just doesn’t feel properly American to many people, and so they need a narrative that justifies this uneasiness. While the foreign birth theory doesn’t have any particular factual backing, it does coincide with some very real feelings of uncertainty some Americans feel about the direction their country is going: one where being white doesn’t count for as much as it used to; where human rights include basic education and health care for everyone, not just those who can afford it; where setting norms for people’s sex lives is no longer considered to be part of the task of government. Those sorts of feelings require some sort of narrative to help people make sense of the frightening loss of familiar, and so it becomes important to formulate a myth about the president being a Muslim foreigner. Duly respecting this myth is thus a matter of seeing what sort of role the myth is playing, understanding why people need it and recognizing that when these needs are great enough there is nothing that can be done to “bust” such myths.

Opinions are things people provisionally choose to believe as a matter of taste. A reasonably good example of an opinion is the one I got myself in trouble for this week: that Justin Bieber is basically the cultural equivalent of other disposable pretty boys in pop over the years –– like Frankie Avalon in the sixties, Shaun Cassidy in the seventies or Jordan Knight in the eighties –– for those who are too young to remember the twentieth century. I don’t have anything in particular against such pretty boys. I see where they have their own commercial function and where they provide a certain sense of cultural identity and mutual objectification as part of what Freud called the latency phase of psycho-sexual development. I don’t personally have much use for such performers, but obviously I’ve never been part of their target audience. My opinion on this matter also includes the provision that such pretty boys don’t really deserve to be compared with artists from those eras who have stood the test of time, such as the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac and U2. I believe that there are also serious musicians whose greatness will be remembered in the current generation as well; I just don’t believe that Bieber will be among them. In other words, in my opinion there’s nothing particularly great about this young pop star. There are those without my gray hair and X-chromosomes, however, who have a very different view on the subject… and frankly they’re entitled to their opinions as well.

Such opinions might affect many of our day-to-day decisions about such things as what forms of noise we each surround ourselves with, but they shouldn’t form the basis of our moral judgments regarding whose rights are worth defending or what sort of world we leave to future generations.  Opinions need to be respected, but kept in their place. As important as beauty is in the world, it is not acceptable to destroy people, their life-support systems and their life’s work simply because they don’t suit your taste –– because in your opinion they happen to be ugly or useless.

Fact is a more philosophically problematic field to concisely define, but for purposes of ninth grade essay grading, and everyday moral life, I would define facts as established and dependable understandings of cause and effect, and of the current state of affairs brought about by such dynamics. For example, It is a fact that the burning of hydrogen gas produces water vapor. It is a fact that the majority of the earth’s population subscribe to one variation or another of the Abrahamic religions, and such people establish their moral values accordingly. It is a fact that the polar ice caps are thinning on a year-to-year basis because of human activity on this planet.  It is a fact that the wealthiest thousandth of the people on earth control over eighty percent of the world’s economic resources. It is a fact that if we destroy this planet we are not in any position to move on to a different one and start all over again. It is a fact that when these facts are taken to be merely matters of opinion very bad things happen. These are all things we can be sure enough about to quite securely base our actions on them without the uncertainty factor involved in the underlying facts being a major consideration. Dismissing such facts as mere opinions, or arguing about these facts rather than doing something about them, where appropriate, is not acceptable.

Bertrand Russell famously said, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” There is some truth to that in that the more you know, the more you realize that you don’t know. This is not to say, however, that being unable to answer basic questions with confidence is a sign of intelligence. There is wisdom in being able to avoid taking your opinions overly seriously, and being able to change them in the light of better information. There is also wisdom in recognizing that our formulation of the facts that affect our lives will always be somewhat limited, and we should be ready to recognize that our previously accepted factual understandings will frequently need to be adjusted or nuanced to a considerable degree. For that matter it is also important to recognize that facts can be variable and still be facts. For instance it is now a fact that I am officially recognized as an EU citizen as well as a US citizen. Last year that was not the case, but that doesn’t make it any less a fact today. But with all of those qualifications in place, facts should not be reduced to matters of opinion; and moral action should be related to fact, not merely reduced to matters of opinion or myth. There are differences to be respected, and those who don’t bother to stop and think about such matters earn less of my respect than those who do.

I continue to put a serious effort into getting more people to recognize these distinctions. That’s not just my opinion; that’s a fact. Whether or not that’s of any importance in the big scheme of things might be more a matter of opinion at this point, and you’re quite entitled you your own.

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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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Fireflies

Over the Easter break I got a chat message from K., one of my fondly remembered students from years past, currently living well on the other side of the world. I’m actually not sure of the state of his own religious beliefs, but K. was telling me that he was recently challenged by a dogmatic atheist who asserted that the ways in which religious people are still trying to penalize homosexuality and prevent same-sex couples from being fully accepted into society is further evidence that religion always does more harm than good in society. So knowing that I am a relatively open-minded and believing sort of person, he wanted to get my take on this question.

My standard brief response on same-sex marriage was that as a committed hetero the status of this legal and cultural innovation isn’t of particular personal importance to me, but as a multiple divorcee myself I believe that I have personally already done more damage to the institution of marriage than any same-sex couple ever will. Beyond that I’m sort of traditionalist still in the sense of believing that ideally children should be raised with positive role models of both sexes at home, but I still see gay couples of either sex raising kids together to be far preferable to a single parent struggling to raise children on his/her own. The main thing is that the child feels loved and secure, and witnesses emotional maturity and adult cooperation between her/his parents. That’s about as far as I’m willing to take a stand on the matter.

K. then wanted to know what I thought of the Bible’s teaching on the matter. I told him that the Old Testament teaching on the subject was basically that sex should always be done in such a way as to potentially make babies –– “be fruitful and multiply” –– and any sexual activity which lacks that capacity is considered sinful. I consider that to have been an important, useful policy relative to the ancient Jews’ and Israelites’ cultural situation back in the day, but not an eternal moral requirement. In my own life I have done my part for the race in terms of producing enough offspring for replacement purposes, but the vast majority of my sexual experience has been of the sort where baby-making was not a possibility. Thus I cannot in good conscience judge others whose sex lives are of non-baby-making varieties.

In terms of the New Testament teaching on the subject the only serious consideration given to homosexuality there was that the Apostle Paul was clearly a bit homophobic in Romans 1, and quite possibly he was a latent homosexual himself and angry at himself regarding his attractions in that direction. If you read his epistles with that in mind it opens up a fascinating new human perspective on things.

K. thanked me for my input and said that he’s been meaning to read more of the Bible for himself sometime, but that he had this nagging feeling that parts of it that just don’t work. He sometimes felt a bit of sympathy with the perspective of the “genius girl” character on the sci-fi series “Firefly” when she wanted to “fix” the preacher’s Bible by trying to take out the parts that didn’t work.book-river-bible

I knew basically what he meant in terms of that urge. It has a long and prestigious cultural history: Thomas Jefferson was one who spent some time with his own version of such a project. Beyond that lately I’ve been reading a book by Chris Hedges in which he says (p. 6), “Christians often fail to acknowledge that there are hateful passages in the Bible that give sacred authority to the rage, self-aggrandizement and intolerance of the Christian Right. Church leaders must denounce the biblical passages that champion apocalyptic violence and hateful political creeds. …Until this happens … these biblical passages will be used by bigots and despots to give sacred authority to their calls to subjugate and eradicate the enemies of God. This literature in the biblical canon keeps alive the virus of hatred, whether dormant or active, and the possibility of apocalyptic terror in the name of God. And the steady refusal by churches to challenge the canonical authority of these passages means that these churches share some of the blame.”

I get what is meant there, but I still basically disagree with the sort of project in question. I don’t think we can go through the Bible censoring out the offensive bits. This might make me sound like an NRA anti-gun control nut, but I don’t believe that scriptures cause genocides; people with tribal mentalities using scriptures as weapons cause genocides. I believe that people need to let go of the idea that through their interpretation of the Bible (or the Qur’an, or the Adi Granth, or the Analects…) they can arrive at perfect and unquestionable certainty about everything in life. Once they set aside their cravings for simple absolutes to use as their epistemological and moral foundations, the scriptures that they turn to for guidance will cease to be a threat to those around them. If they continue craving such simple certainty, however, any moral code that they turn to, no matter how enlightened and inherently benign it might be, will become a deadly weapon in their hands. So for me going through the Bible and blacking out the hateful bits as a means of protecting mankind is a project doomed to failure.

But all that being said, I must confess, I didn’t really know what K. was talking about with his “Firefly” reference, so I had to go and look it up. And given my studious dedication to such matters, over the past week I had to watch the complete series through. (It only had one production season, so it wasn’t that big a task.) I have to admit, it provided me with an interesting perspective on a bunch of different things.

firefly_cast2The series basically lays a thin sci-fi veneer over the 19th century archetype of honorable Confederate soldiers, admitting that they lost the war but never admitting that their cause was not the more just one, forming a sympathetic band of outlaws moving around out on the fringes of  known civilization. This band is made up of  basic assortment of archetypal elements:

  • The captain of the gang, who was a heroic sergeant during the war –– a leader down in the trenches –– who used to be quite a devout Christian but now wants nothing to do with matters of faith 
  • His Stoic and faithful sidekick who quietly and competently takes care of most of the practical details involved in realizing the leader’s strategies (who in this version of the myth happens to be a darker skinned woman) 
  • The crazy wizard of a “wheel man”/driver, capable of getting the gang out of all sorts of scrapes with the law and other menaces through his imaginative maneuvering skills (who in this version of the myth happens to be married to the commander’s faithful sidekick) 
  • The uneducated, unpolished technical genius with a mystical ability to repair and “soup up” just about any machine known to mankind (who here happens to be a “poor white trash” girl) 
  • The simple-minded, high testosterone human killing machine that can never be entirely trusted, but who continuously proves himself to be rather useful in the ever-present gun fight scenarios 
  • The elegant high-end prostitute who relies on the gang’s protection and provides them with an air of refinement at times when they need it, who shares a secret attraction with their commander that neither is willing to admit to anyone 
  • The renegade preacher who has a deep and sincere faith, and lives according to monastic vows, but is fully ready to participate in a righteous battle every now and again (who in this case happens to be black)
  • The young, highly intelligent and highly educated but socially awkward “Yankee” doctor who has his own reasons for running from the law and from his own people, whom the gang keeps on because they find him useful 
  • The doctor’s helpless but gifted little sister, whom the gang band together to protect from the mean, cruel world out there 
  • The outside menaces of “Feds”, hostile tribes, local warlords, chain-gang bosses and the like.

The plot elements in this series, such as they are, are really nothing more than means of exploring the inter-relationships between these archetypal characters, under circumstances that glorify “God, guns and guts” as approaches to greatness. To me the amusing and interesting part of all this is the sheer transparency of the myth being retold in this manner. I’m also fascinated to consider how all this relates to the ear of cultural history which the show falls into just over 10 years ago, in GWB’s first term as president. It came out less than a year after the 9/11 tragedy, and perhaps for that reason it didn’t succeed in building the sort of cult appeal that it was looking for –– that time of exceptional national unity and solidarity in the US was not the ideal time for the telling of a myth of Confederate nostalgia and the honor to be found in resisting the federal government’s encroachment on the lives of heroic southern gentlemen while dreaming that eventually the South can rise again. The writers, producers and directors of this series couldn’t have known when they went into production that such a dramatic change in American consciousness would occur before they would be ready to broadcast. Their tragedy as it turns out: the show never saw a second season.

My guess is that without 9/11 it would have had a much longer run. Or perhaps if it had come out after GWB had succeeded in thoroughly re-dividing the country into “red states” and “blue states”, or after the election of the nation’s first black president brought Confederate nostalgia to its greatest high since the death of the original Civil War veterans, Firefly could have become a long-running cult classic among redneck nerds to rival the status of Lost or Game of Thrones among yuppie nerds. Then again, perhaps the cultural coup of creating a demographic of “redneck nerds” would have been too much to expect of one TV show even under the most ideal political circumstances.

So it remains unclear how much market there might have been for a myth set in a futuristic world where space ships are equipped with rough-sawed hardwood tables and mismatched wicker chairs; where heroes chase down levitating rocket scooters on horseback; where modified six-shooters, pump-action shotguns and 25th century laser cannons are all used in the same gun battles; and where the good guys are once again those who lost their war for independence and are thus forced into submission to a larger federal government, whose powers they continue to resist with the help of guts, guns and perhaps God. Sci-fi/fantasy as a genre has always “pushed the envelope” of seeing how many cultural and scientific impossibilities they can get the audience to overlook. If this one would have succeeded commercially it would have set a new benchmark for enabling an audience to suspend disbelief.  

mal-gun

Perhaps with a longer run the show could have explored how the commander, having been disillusioned of his faith when he saw that God was not there to help out in the righteous war that they lost, could come again to appreciate the importance of having something transcendent to believe in. There were certainly hints in that direction. Or perhaps once these mythical characters were properly familiar to and respected by the audience, the script could have tossed in more intellectually challenging and stimulating variations on the archetypes and mythical structure in question. Then again, maybe they would have just played it safe and stuck to feel-good themes that rednecks are traditionally comfortable with: the married couple deciding to have children in spite of the continuous struggles they are facing, the educated outsider and the down home poor girl managing to fall in love and get married in spite of their clumsiness and cultural differences, the gallant captain eventually making an “honest woman” out of the pure-hearted call girl, the dumb gorilla eventually developing a sense of honor  in terms of appreciating some values more important than his base hedonistic interests, the captain’s honor continuing to cause him to triumph against impossible odds in spite of his gullible trust in others (exploited by his “wife” and his old army buddy in the first season) …

But from my non-southern perspective there are also significant risks in this sort of mythical world gaining prominence in the national psyche. The more committed people are to a belief that resisting any central government is in their best interest –– materially and spiritually –– the less any honest democratically elected government will be able to do to limit the sociopathic powers of big businesses, protect the environment against unsustainable exploitation, or protect the human rights of those who are seen as “different” against local bigotry. The more that people subscribe to a myth that personal gun toting can solve all of their security concerns, the greater the arms race between neighbors will be and the more people will end up getting killed unnecessarily. The more the idea of a new civil war is glamorized, the greater the risk of some hot-heads succeeding in starting such a war. The more people are ready to believe that God is on their side in their honorable killing sprees (wars), the more intense those killing sprees can get. The more elements of nostalgia people depend on –– particularly nostalgia for the “good old days” before civil rights were federally enforced in the US, or for the “good old days” of Apartheid in South Africa –– the less motivated people will be to confront the abuses of “the good old days” and the need to keep working on building a more truly just society.

wallpaper-firefly-serenity-1024

Then again, I admit, maybe I’m just taking a piece of escapist pop culture a bit too seriously.

Whatever the case, though this show did provide me with some hours of amusing distraction this last week, I still think that since the American education system is coming nowhere near equipping kids to critically examine what sort of myths they absorb, it’s probably for the best that Firefly ended up getting cancelled. Then again, if it would have actually succeeded in creating a sub-culture of truly redneck nerds, the sheer entertainment value of watching such creatures trying to function in everyday society might have outweighed the long-term cultural dangers of having the show continue.

My take on a passing trivial matter. Your mileage may vary.

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