Tag Archives: poverty

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

“Misungu, How are You?”

Yes, for those who haven’t heard, this week I’m writing this from the town of Ahero, Kenya, where I’m spending a couple of weeks investigating the field of potential charitable cooperation with schools and orphanages and the like. When setting off on this adventure to “real Africa” (not just some enclave of Western culture on the African continent like Cape Town) I knew sort of what was in store for me, and that I was as prepared as I was going to get, but probably not sufficiently. So far that seems true enough in all senses. This is a basic report on my impressions from my first few days in Kenya –– how it has touched me and what hopes I am starting to develop so far.

c036The passengers on the Kenya Airways flight I took from Amsterdam to Nairobi were a good mix of cultures and skin types; perhaps a slight majority of white folk. The flight itself went without a hitch, other than that (typically for me, some might say) my assigned seat had the one broken entertainment console on the entire 777. But as there were a few passengers who missed their connection to be on the flight there were other places for me to sit where I could be as properly entertained as I wished. We arrived on time to Nairobi just at sunrise, with the temperature surprisingly cool at just under 15 Celsius. The sun and temperature rose quickly, however, burning off the fog before it even had time to give an emotional atmospheric impression.

One of the flight attendants started to give basic instructions for disembarkation, by telling us that those passengers who were transferring to other flights must take the ramp attached to the exit on the right side of the aircraft, and those for whom Nairobi was their final flight destination must take the stairs down from the left… except she forgot to specify the left and right bit, and she couldn’t remember the word for stairs in English. Her colleague where I was standing in the mid-section sort of rolled her eyes and smiled at that.

Getting to the stairs seemed to take a while, and when I got to them the situation was partially explained by the fact of the wheelchair waiting at the bottom, with special assistance staff on hand to wheel this white woman with conspicuously swollen legs through the airport… once she had managed to climb down the stairs on her own. This was my first impression of Kenyans perhaps being a bit lacking in certain aspects of logistical understanding this trip.

Customs clearance was also an exercise in mild communications difficulties making the otherwise friendly service a bit less efficient, but nothing to complain about too seriously. Before the last of my fellow passengers had their business sorted out I had all my luggage and was free to go. I was just starting to phone to my contact, Pastor Dan, when I spotted his face in the crowd.

He proceeded to make some inquiries about the best means of getting to the bus station in town from which we could get the coach to Kisumu. That turned out to be the basic “City Hoppa” service, which seemed to wind its way through most of the various outlying districts of Nairobi where service staff might live before working its way closer to the city center. There were some price guidelines of sorts from last year on the inside wall behind the driver, but near as I could tell ticket prices were subject to barter (which I left to Dan to negotiate). Traffic was hectic, of course, and not all of the roads the shuttle negotiated were paved. There was a pair of conductors who, in a fairly well practiced system of teamwork, took turns taking money from passengers, hanging out the window looking for new passengers on the sides of the roads, directing traffic in aggressive ways to get the bus in and out of informal stopping places and around ruts in the road of over a foot deep, and manually operating the passenger door latch, which consisted of a make-shift peg and loop system had been welded to the door frame where the original hydraulic door operating system once was. They communicated with the driver through a code of sorts which they hammered on the side of the bus as it drove. This daredevil form of transit thus successfully got us within 5 blocks of the coach station without serious incident. I’m really not sure how long each of these stages took but there were 5 hours between my flight’s landing and the coach’s departure from Nairobi for Kisumu, and that turned out to be just enough for the logistics of buying coach tickets and having brunch at a nice little local café that Dan picked out.

The view from the front window of the coach while waiting for departure

The view from the front window of the coach while waiting for departure

The coach itself was, by Kenyan standards, a fairly luxurious form of transport. There was no A/C, onboard toilet or video systems, but it still showed signs of being one of the better services on offer. On impressive feature was the broad reclining seats, which seemed to have been recycled from the business class section of an airliner from the 70s or something. It also had a strong smell of having been freshly disinfected as we boarded. I was the only white person on board, but among the Africans there none seemed to be anywhere close to the poverty line at least.

Once clear of the suburbs of Nairobi, the coach struggled up and down the hilly terrain across the country. Following what seemed to be the only paved road for a significant distance in any direction. Parts of the road were being reconstructed of course, with extended sections of semi-prepared gravel road bed to drive across and rather informal systems of for directing traffic as to which “lanes” to take in either direction. At various intervals there were also police checkpoints equipped with chicanes of spike mats to discourage anyone from trying to bypass them.

Then along the way there were also a number of “shopping centers” of sorts, constructed in what South Africans would call a “township style” of temporary architecture. Mud looked pretty deep surrounding most of them, and life there gave the illusion at least of being pretty relaxed. All of the advertising and direction-giving signs along the way appeared to be in English, but no one actually seemed to be speaking English. Some of these more populated wide spots in the road had some pretty draconian speed bumps installed on the main road to protect the lighter traffic going in and out of them from any momentum that passing trucks and busses might otherwise have built up.

066Another conspicuous factor was that each of these little shopping center villages, other than those set up for foreign tourists at “scenic view” locations, seemed to have 2 or 3 churches and/or church run schools of various brands conspicuously present in them. In fact while driving through the countryside on this main road I counted roughly a church of some sort every two minutes on average. If there is one thing Kenyans doing seem to be lacking then, it’s faith in Jesus. What they seem to be less secure in is how that faith is supposed to relate to building a safer and more secure life for themselves and their children, but I’ll come back to that.

Roughly 7 hours on this coach brought us to the town of Ahero, in the suburbs of Kisumu, where Dan’s wife and a few helpers were waiting for us. My conspicuously pale skin immediately began to draw attention from children on the sides of the dirt roads there. At that point Dan told me that the Swahili word for a white man is “misungu,” and that I would be hearing it a lot from children in particular. True enough. It also seems as though for many Kenyan children, especially at a preschool and early elementary level, the only active English vocabulary they have is “how are you,” together with one or two formulaic responses to such a greeting. Thus I have been more or less continuously confronted with the question, “Misungu, how are you?”

A group of children gathered to stare at the "misungu"

A group of children gathered to stare at the “misungu”

The only difficulty I have in responding to this inquiry from children is that not all of my responses fit within the social formulas they have been taught and memorized; so if I say in response, “I am very happy today,” I mostly get puzzled looks from the young children who are asking. Even so, I started to experience tiredness in some of my facial muscles from sharing smiles with so many little dark faces –– a very satisfying form of tiredness to experience.

On a deeper level though it is of course a more complex question to address: How am I really? I mean, what is this crazy white man doing here to begin with?

I got vaccinated up to the eyeballs for everything relevant to this part of Africa in the months before my trip, and the only health challenge I’ve experienced since I’ve been here thus far has been a few nose bleeds of the sort I am prone to when I get especially tired in travelling. In my first morning here, however, I had to join my host in a stop at the local health clinic, where he was helping a family deal with money transfer issues to pay for the treatment of an elderly aunt for acute malaria. Later in the afternoon I found out that my host himself had been experiencing malaria symptoms, and while we were visiting schools together he left me with an assistant and took off for a doctor’s office to get a prescription for drugs to help fight the disease. Now he is just hoping that the drugs he received will not turn out to be counterfeits, as so many of the drugs available in Kenyan village pharmacies turn out to be.

I was a little bit disappointed to discover that my accommodations had been arranged in a local hotel rather than in the home of some church member as I had expected, but Dan perhaps correctly surmised that it would be necessary to put a “misungu” someplace with running water, a private porcelain throne for his bowel relief needs, coffee service of sorts, and a bed with secure mosquito netting rigged around it. These things would be bit much for any of his very poor parishioners to provide. In this hotel room where I am then the television in the room doesn’t work, there is mold on the ceiling, I got a bit of a jolt from the electric shower system while adjusting the water flow, the toilet lacks a seat, and there are a number of other little details that don’t quite live up to western tourist standards, but overall it works, and I don’t think it will bankrupt me.

The street in front of the hotel where I am staying

The street in front of the hotel where I am staying

But it was Joseph, the headmaster at the first medium sized elementary school I went to visit here in Ahero, that really put the whole matter of “how I am” here in perspective for me. My first impression of Joseph was that he bore striking physical resemblance to my Palestinian colleague, “Mudi”, only slightly darker and older looking –– so I was slightly surprised to discover that he is actually close to a year younger than I am! But in many ways Joseph already thinks of himself as an older man for his community: most of the fathers of his school’s pupils end up dying long before they reach his age.

Of the 360 students in Joseph’s school, 27 are currently HIV positive from birth. So far this school year they’ve had one pupil suddenly die of AIDS. Over three quarters of his pupils’ families live below the poverty line, and many of them are mal-nourished to one extent or another. Illness is frequent and long lasting among these pupils, in part because their parents can’t afford medication, in part because medications are frequently counterfeit anyway, and in part because lack of proper food leaves their little bodies without sufficient energy to fight off even basic illnesses.

Joseph was more than happy to call all of the pupils in his school together in the school yard for a spontaneous assembly to greet this foreign visitor. As he explained it, for his pupils seeing a misungu is a significant source of hope in their lives: For some it raises their hope that some help might come to leave them just a little less physically hungry. For others it is symbolic of a wider world of possibilities, further away from their current challenges, but nevertheless possibly open to them some day. Representatives of the full spectrum of Christian churches are thus welcome, including those who focus on testimonies of having been delivered from lives of sin and crime, because it gave these little minds the message that people can really change, and that one’s early experiences and impossible background challenges don’t have to set the limits of one’s potential. The only sort of misungus he had any serious reservations about where those which came to promote new cults which are especially critical of Christian traditions.

b045It was thus rather humbling to stand in front of this crowd of hopeful children and try to find something spontaneously hopeful to say to them. My message was not that I could promise major material resources for their acute needs –– though I would try to spread the word about their needs –– but that the greatest and most reliable source of human happiness is the feeling that we humans can be important to each other and somehow part of each other in a deeply personal sense. I was there for selfish reasons in the sense that I wanted the sort of fulfilment that I know comes from living according to what we call the Twin Commandment of Love: loving God with my whole heart in terms of being fully committed to what I believe in, and loving my neighbor as myself in terms of coming to recognize even distant others as important elements in what makes me me. All I could offer them for certain under the circumstances was the advice to remember the importance of caring for and caring about each other, and the possibility of having one (more) crazy old friend from way up north to further expand the circle of people to whom they are important.

I spoke in English with some limited translation of key points being offered by Joseph when I paused to take questions. I guess it worked, because my host here who had arranged the visit to begin with said that the school had called him back and saying that they would really like to have me there for a full week of guest lectures. So in that sense, yes, this misungu is feeling quite fine this week.

If there are any other misungus out there (or people of any other skin color for that matter) who want to increase their own happiness by connecting with and supporting an orphan or two in this part of the world that none of the established NGOs have reached yet, or if they want to support a local school teacher or two here who currently live in poverty and work without a salary, or even if they would like to provide basic support for children’s education here in the form of one-time sponsorship of an infrastructure project like pouring concrete over the dirt floors in a primitive school building here to keep it from getting shut down for violations of the local health and safety codes (such as they are),  get in touch with me here and I can hook you up.

c026This is not a means of spreading a message or making converts to some particular brand of Christianity; this is a matter of living up to the ideals that Jesus taught as a means of experiencing the richer sort of life that Jesus talked about in John 10:10. It can be something as simple as brightening the lives of a group of five-year-olds for a moment by showing them the basic theory of how to throw, catch and kick a little American football. It can be something as profound as saving children’s lives through feeding them when they are dangerously hungry. In the end it’s all about love, in the many different non-erotic senses of the word, at least as much for our sake as for theirs. We’re not going to fix all of this country’s problems right away, but we can save some very important lives here, and help some very important people to reach their full potential as people. Seriously, what could be more important than that?

Meanwhile, for any of you for whom this report leads you to pray over what sort of contributions you might consider making to this cause, a few extra words to God on behalf of my own continued health and safety while you’re at it wouldn’t go amiss.

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Filed under Disaster relief, Education, Empathy, Ethics, Happiness, Purpose, Religion, Risk taking, Travel

“What Does the Pope Say?” Part 3

Continuing on where I left off last week regarding Pope Francis’ instant classic, Evangelii Gaudium, we were considering his exhortation to meditate on the many scripture texts which speak of “the inseparable bond” between the message of salvation and loving our neighbor. In short, Francis is saying in no uncertain terms that those who have a genuine urge to connect with and help those who are in need find this sort of activity to be one of their deepest sources of satisfaction in life, and those who do not feel such an urge are unlikely to be saved –– to be numbered among God’s people to begin with. He makes a strong biblical case for this being a core element of the Christian message, the rest being details.

Papal audience, St. Peter's Square, Vatican City, Rome, Italy - 06 Nov 2013So from there the question of “What must I do to be saved?” shows up in a rather different light. When Jesus was confronted by the “rich young ruler” (Luke 18:18-27) who originally asked such a question, he instructed him to “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” It is broadly understood that this injunction was a matter of council for this particular individual, not a precondition for salvation for all would-be believers. But how close should rich people in particular be expected to come to this exhortation in order to gain “treasure in heaven” and the status of living as one of God’s children here on earth?

When it comes to final judgment on such matters, the pope is willing to leave the ultimate determination up to God. He seems to consider this to be part of the spirit of the principle of subsidiarity. But the core issue of the faith remains prioritizing the sharing of God’s compassion ahead of all personal safety and comfort concerns. It is the details of how one goes about fulfilling this mission that are left to be settled between the believer and God. “[N]either the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems.” (EG 184) Yet unlike his predecessors, Francis refuses to let these matters of social responsibility be reduced to vague generalities that can readily be swept under the rug: “The Church’s teachings concerning contingent situations are subject to new and further developments and can be open to discussion, yet we cannot help but be concrete – without presuming to enter into details – lest the great social principles remain mere generalities which challenge no one. There is a need to draw practical conclusions, so that they ‘will have greater impact on the complexities of current situations’.” (EG 182)

The issue here is the message of God’s Kingdom being revealed on earth. This cannot be reduced to a matter of personal mystical experience. “Nor should our loving response to God be seen simply as an accumulation of small personal gestures to individuals in need, a kind of ‘charity à la carte’, or a series of acts aimed solely at easing our conscience. […] To the extent that [God] reigns within us, the life of society will be a setting for universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity.” (EG 180)

“It is no longer possible to claim that religion should be restricted to the private sphere and that it exists only to prepare souls for heaven. […] Christian conversion demands reviewing especially those areas and aspects of life ‘related to the social order and the pursuit of the common good.’” (EG 182)

“Jesus’ command to his disciples: ‘You yourselves give them something to eat!’ (Mk 6:37)… means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter. The word “solidarity” is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.

“Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them.” (EG 188-9)

This means education, access to health care, and above all employment” offering “a just wage [which] enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use.” (EG 192)

Or to put this message in concrete political terms, one can be anti-socialist or one can be a follower of Jesus, but one cannot be both! This message is so clear and direct, so simple and eloquent, that no ecclesial interpretation has the right to relativize it.” (EG 194)

Francis goes on to point out that when St. Paul speaks of avoiding “disqualification” for rewards in heaven for his efforts at spreading the gospel, in Galatians 2, the basic qualification that he holds up as the legitimizing factor for his mission (in verse 10) is that he had eagerly continued to “remember the poor.” If you don’t want to be disqualified before God then, do like Paul did and never let caring for the poor slip from your priorities.

Jesus himself grew up poor, as evidenced by the fact that when he was presented as an infant at the temple, his parents offered doves rather than a sheep. Whatever their social status then, Christians are called to identify with this same sense of poverty. “This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.” (EG 198)

So to be true to the message of the Gospel, believers must continuously identify with the interests of the poor. This does not exclude participation in professions involving wealth and power, but it sets conditions on how we relate to such positions:

“Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.” (EG 203)

Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good. […] I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare.” (EG 205)

Notice that he makes no mention here of politicians preventing pornography, homosexuality or birth control –– the favorite issues of those fighting for “morality” in the name of the Church. In fact those issues are not raised in the entire document. The repeated issues which believing academics, businessmen and politicians should be addressing, as Francis sees it, are to care for the needs of the poor, particularly in terms of ensuring that they have access to quality education and health care regardless of their economic status, and ensuring that their labor is duly compensated –– that corporations are no longer allowed to pay their employees slave wages.

Francis does somewhat apologetically maintain the traditional Catholic position on abortion, but with some significant liberal caveats attached: “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. […] Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. […] Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. […] On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?” (EG 213-214)

This statement rather conveniently, though somewhat necessarily, skirts around the uncertainty factor regarding the presence of an eternal soul in the fetus “from the moment of conception” which John Paul II acknowledged in his anti-abortion opus Evangelium Vitae: “Even if the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be ascertained by empirical data… what is at stake is so important that, from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo. Precisely for this reason, over and above all scientific debates and those philosophical affirmations to which the Magisterium has not expressly committed itself, the Church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence.” (EV 60) In other words we’re not really talking about certainty regarding the existence of an eternal soul in the embryo here; we’re talking about a combination of probabilities and emphatic dogmatic traditions being maintained for their own sake. But even the most strident liberal can probably see that it would open up all sorts of counter-productive cans of worms for Francis to dig any deeper in reforming church teaching on this question. If he can continue to prioritize care for those in the sort of “profound anguish” that in extreme cases leads to abortion over further legislation to regulate abortion, that has to be seen as a positive step.

Francis’ take on scientific matters in general here is not without its problems. He doesn’t really have anything new to say about this matter, but in enthusiastically reinforcing the traditions of the past couple of generations at least he claims, “The Church has no wish to hold back the marvelous progress of science. On the contrary, she rejoices and even delights in acknowledging the enormous potential that God has given to the human mind. Whenever the sciences – rigorously focused on their specific field of inquiry – arrive at a conclusion which reason cannot refute, faith does not contradict it. Neither can believers claim that a scientific opinion which is attractive but not sufficiently verified has the same weight as a dogma of faith.” (EG 243)

In other words we have three essential categories here: absolute scientific facts, dogmas of faith and scientific opinions. Francis is saying that they must be prioritized in precisely that order: Dogmas of faith always take precedence over “scientific opinions”, but “conclusions which reason cannot refute,” also known as scientific facts, take precedence over statements of faith –– presumably even dogmas of faith. This could turn into a really messy debate if we pursue it to its logical conclusions. But given that this is an “exhortation” rather than a formal doctrinal statement, it’s probably best just to leave this as an expression of good will to keep channels of communication open between the Catholic Church and the “scientific community” –– an effort to keep ideologies from blocking the path to “authentic, serene and productive dialogue.” (ibid.)

In addition to dialogue with science as such, Francis also takes the time to promote dialogue with Protestants, Orthodox Church members, Jews, Muslims and agnostic seekers in particular. He stresses that other churches, Muslims and Jews really do worship the same God that Catholics do, and agnostics are often sincerely searching for the sort of spiritual truth that comes from the God of the monotheistic faiths. The point is for “believers and non-believers to engage in dialogue about fundamental issues of ethics, art and science, and about the search for transcendence.” If there wasn’t enough here to make fundamentalists’ heads explode already, that should certainly do it.

But Francis is also acknowledging the need for reconciliation with those theoretically within his own camp –– those claiming to do “God’s work” through various forms of right-wing political action. To them he says, “If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centred mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth.” (EG 208)

What a wonderfully eloquent way of saying, “as your friend I’m trying to help you overcome your current problem of being a complete waste of space on this planet”! Let’s hope they are able to receive this message entirely in the spirit in which it was written.

Francis closes this epistle with a reverent tribute to Jesus’ mother, tying her persona quite directly into his central message: “Contemplating Mary, we realize that she who praised God for ‘bringing down the mighty from their thrones’ and ‘sending the rich away empty’ (Lk 1:52-53) is also the one who brings a homely warmth to our pursuit of justice.” (EG 288)

I must confess though, my “low church” up-bringing has not provided me with this sort of appreciation for the liturgy of the sacred feminine. I don’t reject this form of spirituality; I just don’t strongly identify with this particular appeal. So I’ll close here with a quote from part 274 that all of the “others” which the pope hopes to build a dialogue with could agree on:

We achieve fulfillment when we break down walls and our heart is filled with faces and names!”

May each of you find your hearts so filled this holiday season!





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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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Debt and Making Money

There’s a pretty serious crisis in government going in the United States so far this month, which relates to a slightly lesser crisis in government throughout Europe and many other parts of the world which are making a believable pretense at democracy. The crisis is basically this: the burden of pretending to be democratic is getting in the way of those who would wish to run things in a more autocratic fashion, and therefor there are major efforts underway to undermine people’s faith in the institutions of democracy, potentially clearing the way for a group of self-appointed moral guardians of the people to take charge of the running of things without the messiness of the “less moral” populace getting involved in the process. This is the definitive essence of fascism. This is effectively the partially considered strategy of the “Tea Party” faction within the US Republican Party.

Tea party vs democracyThe scary part about this is not that, as in the time of St. Augustine, we are witnessing the inevitable collapse of a dominant empire in the world; but rather that in previous historical eras when an empire controlling more than half of the world’s economic systems and armed forces was collapsing the dangers of their technologies falling into the hands of unscrupulous warlords were not nearly as great. Thus I write this hoping that I can play some small role in convincing some would-be moral(istic) Americans not to go along with the ideological destruction of systems of democratic government in the United States, for the safety of all of us –– American and non-American alike –– who still have to share this planet for most of the foreseeable future.

Besides childish objections to the idea of health and education being seen as basic human rights, the basic excuse that the Tea Partiers are offering for discrediting democratic institutions and trying to shut down the US government on a longer-term basis has to do with deficit spending. In the words of my friend Joel, who seems to have marginal sympathies in that direction: “Every single hour, of every single day, the U.S. government spends about $200 million that it doesn’t have… For a point of reference, consider that in just two months, the government borrows more money than the combined annual profits of the 100 biggest publicly traded companies in America.

“That’s absolutely incredible, isn’t it? Keep this up and we won’t have a country that allows us to debate and work through issues surrounding voting, immigration, privacy matters, military intervention, terrorism, social justice, abortion, guns, drugs, race relations, gay marriage, religious rights, taxes, health care, national security, national parks, et al.

“Most every citizen feels absolutely impotent as to what to do about this mess, while watching the ‘clowns’ (no disrespect to actual circus clowns) in Washington — run by TWO party machines (and lobbyists) that do not truly care about the tax-paying citizens. All these politicians (not statesmen) care about is acquiring or staying in power. And they seem to use ANY means to do so…until they run out of tax-payer’s money.”


With all due respect to Joel and other Tea Party sympathizing PhDs, the basic problem is that he seems to have forgotten what money actually is and where it comes from. Or I don’t know, maybe he doesn’t know. In real terms the system is designed so that no one can really understand the system of money creation entirely –– sort of like the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in that regard.

It actually reminds me of the time I spent as part of the board of directors for the oldest continuously operating student organization in Finland: the University of Helsinki’s theology student organization, currently going by the initials TYT. TYT got to be the oldest in this sense by surviving the Tsars’ purges of “potentially subversive” student organizations back in the 19th century by taking advantage of the complexity of the Finnish language and its absurd potential as a tool of bureaucracy. The founding theology students, with a little secret help from their friends in the faculty of law, put together a constitution for this organization in the most obtuse Finnish Bureacratese ever written, so that when the Russian governors of the time came to inspect to make sure things were operating in a proper and respectable manner they were able to make neither heads nor tails of the proceedings. Consequently no official protest against their operations were ever filed and useful forum was preserved for gathering bright young minds who worked on building a respectable Finnish culture as such –– and eventually a state to go together with it –– through Finland’s final years as a grand duchy of the Russian Empire.

The international banking system in use in the world today uses much the same tactics, only rather than using it to keep imperial inspectors at a distance, they use it to keep common citizens at a distance. Bankers go to great lengths to play their own games at the expense of everyone else in the system, keeping things just complicated enough so that when they are caught breaking the rules everyone else remains too confused to get upset about it.

But let’s break it down into simple terms that pretty much everyone can understand. The most important thing to wrap your head around is this: There is no form of money which is intrinsically valuable. As Eric Garland wrote in The Atlantic  last year regarding the gold standard, “Unless you decorate state capitol domes for a living, nobody really needs gold — but it is tangible and limited, though you can mine more if you happen to be really motivated.” But the main point is that it “can be exchanged directly for goods and services, if you find someone who will take the trade.” The value of any currency then is not God-given, but based on who is willing to give you what in exchange for it.

These days there are a number of local exchange programs based on the concept of certificates worth a given number of hours. I spend a certain number of hours mowing your yard or splitting your fire wood or tutoring your children, and in exchange for that you give me the appropriate number of hours’ certificates so that I can use those to get someone else to fix my teeth or pick berries for me or wash my laundry. For some types of work fewer than 60 minutes’ effort is considered to be worth an hour’s worth of “normal labor” but that can be negotiated between those who are willing to trade on such a basis. The point of these systems is to get local people to work together and provide each other with the things they need to maintain their lives, liberties and pursuits of happiness. National and international currencies are effectively based on the same principle, but the question is, who gets to write out the certificates to start with, and what is to stop them from writing out more of them whenever they feel like it just to get people to do what they want them to do while offering no other service in return?

Imagine that there are a few hundred of us stranded on a deserted island, as in Lost on a bigger scale, before it starts getting seriously mystical. If we accept that rescue is not immediately forthcoming, money, jewelry, etc. from the outside world will come to be of little value between us. Power and cooperation is not going to be based on who has such symbolic items. Rather, in the short-term, it will be based on who is able to seize control of resources others actually need for survival; and in the longer-term on what people are able to do to help each other out.

lost-1If the society is small enough where literally everyone knows everyone, your word and honor is your currency: Someone helps you out on the expectation that they can trust you to help them out in the future. People contribute to the “general good” so that they will have access to others’ contributions to the “general good” later on. But if things get too big for us to know and keep track of everyone then we need some form of written records or symbolic items to help keep track of who has contributed what to the well-being of which others. So let’s imagine that within our little society we appoint some authority to produce a set of certificates that help us keep track of such things. These certificates will have a number of different denominations, but we might say that the basic unit will be worth an hour’s labor. So what makes these certificate valuable is a general public agreement of what people are willing to do to get them. They have no value in themselves, their value will be in what people are willing to do for them.

That’s actually the same with any sort of money we have in the world today.

Now imagine that the fellow who is physically producing these certificates starts treating himself to all sorts of extra favors with the power that this gives him. He want’s someone to build him a bigger house than anyone else’s, so he writes out all sorts of hour’s work certificates to those who agree to build this fancy house for him. It doesn’t cost him anything to do so, and the certificates go into circulation in our little society from there pretty freely and productively. Is there any harm done in the certificate writer using his power to his advantage in this way?

One risk is that he writes out so many of these certificates that everyone ends up with piles of the things and no one really cares to bother to do anything anymore to get them –– they cease to serve as a measure of exchange value because they are in unlimited supply. But what if the fellow who is writing out these certificates is being subtle enough about it so that there aren’t too many of the things around, but still the only way anyone gets any new ones is by doing what he selfishly wants them to do? How far can this go before it leads to some sort of revolution?

Perhaps to keep one guy from abusing the system in this way we should appoint a group of guys to do this together and keep tabs on each other in the process. But what’s to stop them from forming a sort of cartel which enables them to work together in effectively cheating everyone else? The fundamental question remains the same: How far can their corruption go before it brings the whole system crashing down?

This is the basic situation in the world of banking today. Central banks are organizations somewhat separate from governments which have been given the right to literally make money that people within the societies in question can use as a basis for working together and exchanging services. They give the money they make out of thin air to governments and others who wish to borrow it from them in exchange for promises of getting whatever they want in return. Bankers are thus able to write obscene salaries for themselves in exchange for doing nothing more than roughly keeping track of how much money they print and pass around. They’re not doing anything to make this money valuable; the people who are willing to work for that money are the ones who give it value.

so-true-34-pics_3Meanwhile (most) governments have sort of removed themselves from the process of making their own money, mostly to keep people from getting too spooked by the idea that money is being made out of thin air to start with. Governments “borrow” this money from the banking organizations who make it out of nothing, on licenses granted by the governments themselves. To keep this process believable, governments have to be able to pretend to pay this money back to the banks, and to private parties who have made deposits in these banks, not so much from new money being produced, but from the value of the work done for that money coming back around to the government in the form of taxes.

In the little island society example and in the global financial system in practice today, the most important issue is not how much debt there is –– how much service has been promised but has yet to be delivered –– but rather what and how much are people capable of and willing to do for each other, and on what basis can they believe that they will be fairly compensated for their efforts. This is imperfectly measured by the ratio of new money creation to the GNP, and the national debt is relevant to this primarily as one of the factors driving the former variable.

This wiki image is slightly out of date, but...

This wiki image is slightly out of date, but…

People are generally willing to allow a certain number of individuals to be exempt from actual productive labor so that they can keep things organized for the good of all involved in the system, but when those doing the organizing start to get too distant from those whose labors they are trading in to care about their well-being any more, and when the people who are doing the actual production lose trust in those who are organizing the interaction between them because of the obvious corruption they see at the upper levels, that’s when the entire system is in the greatest danger of collapse.

Democratic institutions, or some believable pretense at such, seem to be the best means humans have yet discovered for maintaining some stable sense of trust between those doing the organizing and those providing more concrete services to each other. Keeping banks sort of at arm’s length from the legislative process also seems to be a useful strategy for keep people trusting in the value of the money that the banks make. This trust would be significantly improved if more governments were able to do like Iceland did recently and seriously punish the most corrupt and incompetent members of their banking communities. But the last thing we should be worried about these days is debt: making sure the bankers keep getting back their fair share of the fruits of everyone else’s labors. Our primary concerns need to be arranging things so that people continue to feel as though they have something of value to offer each other, and so that helping each other out –– by way of both market activity and non-market activity –– is something people remain motivated to do.

A significant part of this in moral terms is to base as little of that motivation as possible on threat and blackmail. We don’t want societies operating on the premise of, “You do what I tell you to or your child dies!” It’s easy to forget sometimes just how close we are to such a dynamic.

There was a time, just a few generations ago actually, when it was more the rule than the exception that most families would lose a child or two before they reached adulthood to malnutrition, disease or accidents caused by lack of safety precautions (which would have been too expensive). Poor people worked hard to reduce the odds of that happening to their children, as long as they believed that their work could make a difference in the matter. For some of the psychopaths in charge of large businesses having a few poor children die every now and again was a necessary part of keeping the system going.

These days we are more inclined to take it for granted that all children, even poor ones, have a right to live into adulthood, but there are some corporations which are doing everything in their power to return us to the “good old days” in those respects. In parts of the United States they have been quite successful in this regard. The thing that is slowing them down in this process though is a (pretense at a) system of (small d) democratic government which is based on a premise of “the little people” being able to come together to stand up for their rights, including children’s rights to education and health care that keeps them from dying of preventable causes, regardless of how much their parents do or don’t get paid for what they do for work. So it would be far better for business if they could shut down as much of the system of democratic government as possible.

As I said at the start here, my fear is that if the psychopaths behind the Tea Party movement fully succeed in this process not only will thousands more poor American children lead sad lives and die young (and I’m not being melodramatic here), but the tools of economic and military dominance which have been developed over the past century or so will come to be used with even less pretense of restraint. This could lead to the de facto enslavement of billions more people and further reckless exploitation of limited natural resources, leading to billions more unnecessarily early deaths. Some in the American Religious Right would disagree with me on such matters, but I still hold to an ethical position that contributing to such processes is a morally wrong thing to do.

My strongest hope is that enough Americans will start believing enough in the idea of democracy as such to make it true again –– in some ways for the first time –– within the United States; that people they will stop letting those who are milking the system by doing nothing more than finding creative ways of telling others what to do for them run things without even a pretense of interest in the well-being of those they are abusing in the process. I realize that a lack of philosophical content within the education system has seriously reduced the likelihood of many there figuring this problem out, but there are some smart people there who might get it anyway, and it remains remotely possible that they might be able to wake up just enough of their (our) countrymen to stop the complete collapse that things now seem to be headed towards.

Joel, others… care to help?

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Facing my Fears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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