22 December 2008

The Meanings of Christmas

So this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun
And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones
The old and the young - John Lennon, "So This is Christmas"

When I was a child, Christmas began shortly after Thanksgiving. My sister, father, and I would all go out to the storage shed behind our home and clamber around looking for the Christmas decorations. The shed was the epitome of chaos, and it always took a while. We'd bring the boxes in, where they would be opened in full and used to decorate the home. The plastic tree would rise and the ornaments would be plucked out of their boxes. I would root anxiously through them looking for my personal ornament: a hand-sewn Santa Claus that my 2nd grade teacher gave me. He had holes in him, and we stuck candy canes through him: the hooks served as arms and the staves as legs. The tree would become an interesting environment for my toys as the month wore on and my mom made her traditional holiday treats. On Christmas eve, we would pile into our family vehicle and go looking at Christmas lights while the radiator blew warm air in our faces and we listened to Christmas music. We always had our favorite yearly spots. When we returned home, my sister and I would each open one Christmas present, and then go to bed.

In the morning, I would wake up early and make my way to the living room, shivering in anticipation. As I rounded the corner the couch would come into sight, loaded with the toys that "Santa" brought. My mom would wake up when she heard me, and then she and I would wait for my teenage sister and dad to wake up. After going through the gifts, cleaning up the mess the wrapping paper made, and eating breakfast, we would spend the day at my grandparents, returning home late that night. Such was our Christmas custom. As we all grew older, customs changed. Action figures gave way to CDs as I entered my teenage years, while at the same time my sister grew up, got married, and had a couple of children. As the years wore on, Christmas became less about my sister and myself and more about my niece and nephew. Our traditions changed accordingly. We now go to my sister’s house on Christmas Eve, and we watch the kids tear through their own toys with great delight. My Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles playsets have been replaced by my nephew’s toy motorcycle collections: the pictures my mother takes no longer reflect the beaming faces of my sister and me, but rather of my niece and nephew -- whose smiles and faces look ever so much like ours, and our parents.

The meaning of Christmas has changed for me. It has become much more of a reflective period where lighthearted frivolity has given way to somber joy. That is not the contradiction-in-terms that it may sound, for it means to me a deep satisfaction with life and an inner happiness that may not translate well. While I normally scoff at tradition, the Christmas season changes that. I look forward to going to my parents' home and watching Christmas movies, to going to my sister's on Christmas eve and listening to my niece and nephew's prolonged chorus of "Awesome!" and "Cool!". I look forward to perpetuating my own private traditions -- to watching A Christmas Carol, to reading a few books, and to watching the Star Wars trilogies straight through. (The last is admittedly an odd tradition, but my tradition nonetheless.) I look forward to seeing a lit-up tree and to going to my grandparents' home and smelling the chicken dumplings and seeing the countryside around their home the way it has been all of my life. Our traditions, Christmas and otherwise, good or otherwise, connect us to the past. They give our present meaning.

So much of what we consider "Christmasey" is tradition. The very timing of it, for instance -- near the winter Solstice (December 22). The winter solstice represents the beginning and deepest part of winter. It is the shortest and darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, a fact recognized by every culture in said hemisphere that I know of. During the long, cold, and dark winters, our ancestors once brought into their homes pieces of evergreens to give them color, even as they were surrounded by the bleakness of winter. We continue that tradition unthinkingly as we put up our Christmas trees, real or otherwise.

Christmas has become a time of reflection for me. As I think on the the past and the traditions thereof, I realized how they have changed. I realize how my life has changed, and I realized that future Christmases will bring future changes. My niece and nephew will eventually grow up and establish families of their own, and my family's traditions will change. I may be forced to move in pursuit of a career, separated from "home" by a distance only airplanes can shorten. When in my reflection I realize this, I realize too that this also gives my present meaning. When I think on this, I realize the necessity of appreciating the moment, of enjoying today. I think that when I am older, I will look on these years with the same fondness that I now look on my childhood years with.

Beyond tradition, I think too of my good standing in life. I cannot use words like "fortunate" or "blessed" because I believe in neither luck nor fairy god-mothers. I can say that I am safe, warm, happy, and -- grateful. I am grateful to my parents for working so hard to give my sister and I the childhood we had -- and I am grateful to my sister and her husband for working as hard as they do to provide another childhood like that to their children. I know that Christmas brings with it much aggravation, but still I cannot escape the deep satisfaction that it brings.

So that is what Christmas means to me: family, tradition, and reflection. I value the season. I know that the same values are not shared by everyone. Other people have other traditions: they may have none at all. They may not see the time as a period of reflection. My niece and nephew certainly won't, and I would find it odd if they did. Many people lose focus and became consumed by commercialism -- forgetting that the tokens of appreciation that we exchange are tokens only, bereft of meaning outside of the intent in which they were given. Other people use the solstice period to honor the religious traditions for which the holiday is currently named: the Christian tradition that YHWH sent his son to Earth to reconcile him with humanity. For them, ideally, the period is a time of forgiveness and brotherly love, the kind epitomized in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Other people maintain these beliefs and pay lip-service to the ideals while crowing that the Christian meaning is the ONLY meaning. I say that's nonsense. While many people do pay service to their religious traditions, those traditions are about people -- about people's fears and hopes and desires. Family traditions and personal meanings far overshadow the religious contributions to the season -- beyond the name, some music, and nativity scenery. When people think of Christmas, do they really think of theology -- or do they think instead of the smell of hot chocolate and family feasts?

Here we are as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore...
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more
Through the years,
We all will be together --
If the fates allow.
Hang a shining star
Upon the highest bough..
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

I do not believe those who say theirs is the only meaning of Christmas. They are wrong, but if they wish to drive their blood pressure up while ranting about the evil secularists, they are welcome to the emotional distress they bring upon themselves. Ironically, these are very often the same people who are more devout to another religion of the season -- the religion of money and commercialism. As for me, I will continue to keep Christmas in my own way, in reflection and somber joy -- all the while thinking about the values of shared ideals like forgiveness and tradition.

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, " returned the nephew [of Scrooge]: "Christmas, among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round [...] as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open up their shut-up hearts freely and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe it has done me good and will do me good, and I say God bless it!" - Fred Scrooge to his uncle Ebenezer, A Christmas Carol

20 December 2008

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan died on 20 December 1996. I don't remember when I discovered his work, but his books were invaluable to me in 2006. Through his books, he helped me rediscover a love for science and an accompanying sense of wonder about the world. His Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and The Demon-Haunted World are two particular favorites. Sagan was not just a scientist and a skeptic, though: he was also a humanist and has been an inspiration to me these past few years.

A few Sagan-related links:

18 December 2008

This I Believe II

A few days ago I posted some meaningful quotations from a collection of essays wherein individuals express their personal values. I read a second collection this week and am sharing similar quotations now.
"We all belong to the same human tribe; that kinship supersedes our differences." - Terry Ahwal

"I believe I've got no right to make others suffer for my lack of conviction." - Brigid Daull Brockway

"What I want more than ever is to appreciate that I have this day, and tomorrow, and hopefully days beyond that. I am experiencing the learning curve of gratitude. I don't want to say 'have a nice day' like a robot. I don't want to get mad at the elderly driver in front of me. I don't want to go crazy when my Internet access is messed up. I don't want to be jealous of someone else's success. You could say that this litany of sins indicates that I don't want to be human. The learning curve of gratitude, however, is showing me exactly how human I am." - Mary Chapin Carpenter

"I believe we have the power to create our own happiness. I believe the real magic in the world is done by humans. I believe normal life is extraordinary." - Wayne Coyne

"I believe how we treat the people we dislike the most and understand the least -- Jehovah's Witnesses, for example -- says a lot about the freedoms we value." - Joel Engardio

"I believe our capacity to tolerate both religious and personal difference is what will ultimately give us true liberty -- even if it means putting up with an occasional knock on the door." - Joel Engardio

"I believe in upholding reference for all life. I believe that humanity has a responsibility to the earth and to the life that we share our experience with." - Michaelle Gardner-Quinn

"Can one act of friendliness start to generate peace? I believe it can. Peace begins with one person but spreads like warmed syrup. When I connect with my neighbors, they return it in kind. So I believe in friendliness and an open ear. For me, it starts with making eye contact when I pour coffee and ask my customers, "How you doing?" and then listen to their answer. My job is to take care of customers at the counter in a small Texas diner, but I also believe we're in the world to take care of each other." - Ivory Harlow

"I believe in being what I am instead of what sounds good to the rest of the world." - Yolanda O'Bannon

"I watch what I do to see what I really believe." - Helen Prejean

"I believe that I always have a choice. No matter what I'm doing. No matter where I am. No matter what is happening to me. I always have a choice." - Catherine Royce

"I am my words, my ideas, and my actions. I am filled with love, humor, ambition, and intelligence. This I believe: I am your fellow human being, and, like you, I am so much more than a body." - Lisa Sandin

"Science has taught us that normal genes in cells can be damaged or mutated to become deadly 'oncogenes' that result in cancer. I believe brutality is a disease just like cancer; each and every one of us is at risk, including me. [...] We're taught not to smoke in order to prevent carcinogens from damaging the genes in our cells. I wish we could learn to prevent hatred from forming and brutality from actualizing." - Yinong Young-Xu.

17 December 2008

I Am Humanity

I found this song on YouTube over a month ago, but neglected to share it here. The song is "I Am Humanity", and is by Bob Rafkin. I found it when I search on YouTube for the phrase "I am humanity".

Sample Lyrics, first versus and chorus:

I can't say I am free of guilt --
I bear responsibility.
For everything there is outside,
I also have inside of me.
The beauty and the joy,
I know I'm quick to claim --
But I must also recognize
That I'm the hand that brings the pain.

I'm part of all eternity,
The center of the wheel
The one who lives an honest life,
and the one who lives to steal
I witness every age,
I'm the foolish, I'm the sage --
I am everyone oppressed and free,
I am Humanity.

11 December 2008

This I Believe

Recently I read This I Believe, a collection of some eighty essays sharing the personal philosophies of average men and women. In the interests of promoting it, I decided to share a few quotations I particularly liked. Many of the essays have a value that cannot be communicated in one quotation, however.

"I believe in people. I feel, love, need, and respect people above all else, including the arts, natural scenery, organized piety, or nationalistic superstructures. One human figure on the slope of a mountain can make the whole mountain disappear for me. One person fighting for truth can disqualify for me the platitudes of centuries. And one person who meets with injustice can render invalidate the entire system which has dispensed it. I believe that man's noblest endowment is his capacity to change. Armed with reason, he can see two sides and choose: He can be divinely wrong. [...] We must encourage thought, free and creative. We must respect privacy. We must observe taste by not exploiting our sorrows, successes, or passions. We must learn to know ourselves better through art. [...] We must not enslave ourselves to dogma. We must believe in the attainability of good. We must believe, without fear, in people." - Leonard Bernstein

"Good can be just as communicable as evil." - Norman Corwin

"If I were to discover that there is no afterlife, my motive for moral living would not be destroyed. I have enough of the philosopher in me to love righteousness for its own sake." - Elizabeth Deutsch (Earle)

"I believe that it's important to recognize and appreciate joy when you feel it. Every once in a while, and not just on special occasions, I've suddenly realized that I am truly happy right now. This is a precious experience, one to savor." - Elizabeth Deutsch (Earle)

"I believe in the connection between strangers when they reach out to one another." - Miles Goodwin

"I don't believe anyone can enjoy living in this world unless he can accept its imperfection. He must know and admit that he is imperfect, that all other mortals are imperfect, that it is childish to allow these imperfections to destroy all his hope and all his desire to live." - Oscar Hammerstein II

"I have often longed for peace and tranquility -- looked into the lives of others and envied a kind of calmness -- and yet I don't know if this tranquility is what I truly would have wished for myself. One is, after all, only really acquainted with one's own temperament and way of going through life. It is best to acknowledge this, to accept it, and to admire the diversity of temperaments Nature has dealt us." - Kay Redfield Jamison

"I believe in the absolute and unlimited liberty of reading. I believe in wandering through the stacks and picking out the first thing that strikes me. I believe in choosing books based on the dust jacket. I believe in reading books because others dislike them for find them dangerous. I believe in choosing the hardest book imaginable. I believe in reading up on what others have to say about this difficult book, and then making up my own mind." - Rick Moody

"We are each other's business; we are each other's harvest; we are each other's magnitude and bond." Gwendolyn Brooks

"I believe in the human race. I believe in the warm heart. I believe in man's integrity. I believe in the goodness of a free society. And I believe that the society can remain good only as long as we are willing to fight for it -- and to fight against whatever imperfections may exist." - Jackie Robinson

"I believe in life. I believe in treasuring it as a mystery that will never be fully understood, as a sanctity that should never be destroyed, as an invitation to experience now what can only be remembered tomorrow." - Andrew Sullivan

07 December 2008

Emotional Maturity

I'm beginning to think that the foundation for emotional maturity is the realization of two things:
  • We cannot control what happens to us.
  • The only thing we can control is our response to what happens to us.

In the summer of 2006, I fell sick for nearly two weeks. I don't know what hit me, but the two symptoms I was conscious of were (1) extreme fatigue and (2) prolonged and severe headaches. I was bedridden the majority of the time. Despite this, though, I somehow had the presence of mind to write "...we have good days and we have bad days, but we deserve neither." I realized that I was sick, but I realized as the first week wore on that the symptoms were lessening, that it would pass.

It was this attitude that allowed me to maintain my composure while I was sick, to not give in to despair. I simply laid in bed, resting, thinking of other things. I won't deny that if I could have fallen asleep and died that I would have welcomed the relief -- for such was my physical misery -- but I survived. The lesson of that sickness has stayed with me, and has guided my thinking ever since. It's important to me. I don't know where it came from, but ah! -- how useful it is.

We do have bad days. We're attacked by viruses, mistreated by others, are stuck in traffic jams, have unexpected financial difficulties -- in summary, suffer from circumstances beyond our control. You can't stop people from talking about you -- you can't help catching a viruses. The air is filled with them. On the same note, though, we also have good days where traffic moves just the way we want. We go to the zoo and the animals amuse us: our path crosses that of a friendly stranger, and we make a personal connection. We have an easy day at work -- we go outside and find that the weather is ideal.

The idea that we can keep bad things from happening, or make good thing happen, is behind every superstition. Our ancestors did rain dances and sacrificed virgins to keep the sun rising: our contemporaries pray to the heavens to send rain. They weep and pray at their alters, trying to invoke the gods' favor to give them a raise, find them a mate, keep them from harm. People buy rabbit's feet and contractors design buildings that skip from floor twelve to floor fourteen.

Despite all of this effort, though, they can't actually change what happens. If I pray to Athena for good traffic on my drive to someplace, the effect will be exactly the same as if I had prayed to a bag of Skittles or not prayed at all (provided the time I spent praying instead of driving is taken into consideration). I can be as friendly as I like to people, but I'm not going to generate "karma" that makes people treat me kindly in return. Oh, some will return my smile with a smile, but that's only a natural response in people who like being treated with friendliness. We can't change these vents of life, and we waste considerable time, effort, and energy in trying to do so.

As much as we can't control, though, there is one powerful thing we can control: our own mind. It's safe to say that our emotional impulses give us much reason for regret: we make bad choices on them, and later say "I wish I'd thought that through". How many people are in the prisons today because they did something out of impulse -- threw a punch at someone, for instance? Human beings are so passionate that many religions and philosophies push for more self-control. Even emotional Pentecostalism teaches that self-control is part of the fruit of the spirit -- although it's not actually practiced. (An ex-Pentecostal joke: when is self control not a fruit of the spirit? In a Pentecostal church.)

People do learn self-control in varying degrees. They learn fairly quickly, for instance, that you have to watch what you say in front of authority figures. Some people are better at controlling themselves than are others. But this kind of self-control is limited to what we do, to how we respond rather than react to what's done to us. It doesn't include an ability to control what we do by ourselves, or how we think -- and these things are just as if not more important.

Why is how we think important? I believe it is so because our thinking defines our reality. If you go outside and look at a tree, you're not really seeing the tree: you're seeing the image your brain drew of the tree, using the light that is reflected or absorbed from them and taken in by your cones and rods. If you have "normal" vision, you will see it as a collection of greens and browns, probably. But what if you're color-blind? What if the equipment that draws your image of a tree is different from most everybody else's? The image drawn will be different.

The same is true of every sense, I think. Our brains create a reality based our senses. This is true for the sense of reason, which has to be trained rather than being automatic. (The idea of reason as a sense is another essay, I think.) I learned at a fairly young age that I could manipulate the way I sensed things. Have you ever noticed that a location that is new to you looks different than it does when you're familiar with it? Take a house -- does it "feel" different from the way it did when you first moved in? When things are new, they are colored by our imagination, by possibilities: when we are familiar with them, they're colored by our experiences. I realized that I could manipulate my thinking and see something old through new eyes -- and see something new through a sense of familiarity.

Not everyone is conscious of this: just last year, while walking up the stairs in my residency hall at my university, I commented to someone that 'I can still see this place the way it was when I first moved in.' He turned his head and looked at me, replying "It looks just the same. We haven't changed anything..." It wasn't the sight of the place, it was feeling of the place: what it meant, and through that, how it looked. It's a subtle difference, and I'm not sure how to explain it. But this taught me that I could manipulate the way I thought about things.

In late 2006 or early 2007, I read an essay titled Humanist Spirituality: Oxymoron or Authentic Path to Enlightenment? by Doug Muder, a Unitarian minister. In it, he explores the idea of spirituality, and connects it to the Stoic practice of being mindful of one's thoughts: of thinking about how you think and how your thoughts impact your state of mind. The lecture impressed me to the point that I re-read it every so often, and when I read it I began trying to put it into practice. I began to examine my thoughts, to apply reason to them and ask if they were doing me any good. When the way people treated me inspired anger, I seized that anger and thought: will growing angry do me any good? Or will it just make matters worse? When I want to give in to hate, I think: do I really want to sacrifice part of my emotional well-being to this person? Why? When I grew upset or despair at a situation, I turned that anger or despair into the willpower to change the situation. I forced my emotions to work for me -- and if they weren't useful, I neutered them. The podcasts of Zelig Pliskin -- amusingly, an Orthdox rabbi- helped. He advises his listeners to think about the way they're thinking and feeling, to apply reason to them.

I think that this Stoicism is a logical extension of being a freethinker. I said in my "This I Believe" essay that inspired by the successes of the scientific method, I adopted critical thinking as part of my worldview. If I use reason as my guide for what I believe, why not use it to order the way I think? A year ago -- Thanksgiving week, 2007 -- I read my first bit of Stoic literature, that of Marcus Aurelius' meditations. Shortly before Thanksgiving this week, I read Epictetus' Discourses and Manual for Virtuous Living. In both, I found amazing insights that built on this distinction between that which we can control and that which we can't. I've shared my favorite quotations from Aurelius before, and I plan to post my favorites from Epictetus in a week or so. I've been thinking about writing this essay -- or musing, whichever it has turned out to be -- since the summer, and I didn't want to post Epictetus until after posting this. The reason is partly vanity: the distinction between what we can control and what we can't is the essence of everything Epictetus said, and I like the fact that the stuff I think of independently has already been thought of before by people I consider wise. It makes me think I'm doing something right.

Because I read Epictetus before I finished articulating my own thoughts, I'm going to end this with a few quotations from his works that illustrate the theme of what I was writing about. It seems an apt way to conclude.

Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: some things are within our control, and some things are not. Keep your attention focuses entirely on what is truly your own concern, and be clear that what belongs to others is their business and none of yours.

When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it: you can either accept it or resent it. What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance. [...] We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.

People don't have the power to hurt you. Even if someone shouts abuse at your or strikes you, if you are insulted, it is always your choice to vie w what is happening as insulting or not. If someone irritates you, it is only your own response that is irritating you.

05 December 2008

Other People

"It's easier to love humanity as a whole than to love your neighbor."

I constantly find myself evaluating the way I deal with specific people. They are people in my life for various reasons -- family and familiar acquaintances -- who I don't know how to deal with for various reasons. I always labor to treat people well, and I think I do a fairly good job of it. I'm not a person given to emotional displays or insults. It probably sounds a bit snobbish, but I consider that beneath me. I understand why other people do it, but I've guarded my emotions ever since I was a child and have not raised my voice since I was a toddler: broadcasting my emotions for all to see simply is not in my character. I could no more yell hateful words at someone than I could flap my arms and fly: my emotional restraint is that ingrained.

This is not to say I am a cold and removed person. I was at one point five or six years ago . Then, out of desperation for simple human contact, I began reaching out to people -- saying hello, then having conversations with strangers -- and realizing what it meant to function as a socially healthy human being. I am now described as friendly and personable by other people, and I consider such a compliment to be a personal triumph. But this amiability is simply the way I treat people I don't know: it isn't the way I treat people I'm familiar with, people who I share experiences with.

With strangers, the equation is simple: this is a human being, and I'm going to be friendly because I like being friendly and judging by my experience, more people than not enjoy being treated with friendliness. With someone I know, however, our history seems as if it has to be entered into the equation -- introducing variables that throw the way I relate to people into question. When I share experiences with strangers, they become three-dimensional people, and people are complicated. They're judging me by more than that initial friendliness, and so are responding to me differently. The relationship becomes much more complicated.

I take the golden rule seriously: I treat others as I would want them to treat me. I don't insult them or speak ill of them in their absence. I dislike even writing this because I have specific people in mind and I would not want them to do what I am doing -- even though no one reading this could possibly know who I had in mind. The problem with that ideal, though, is that people treat me in ways that I can't possibly conceive of treating them in. I can't say "How do I respond to this person for doing _____ to me, keeping in mind how I would want them to treat me if I had done _____ to them?" because their behavior is completely alien to me. I can no more conceive of acting that way because of my highly ingrained emotional control than I can conceive of acting as a termite acts, or acting as a whale acts. As a result, the entire apparatus of the golden rule ideal break downs.

But when my thinking turns to this, I think of Isaac Asimov's words: "Show me someone who says he doesn't understand people, and I'll show you someone who has built up a false idea of himself." They seem to ring true, for we all are human: we all share the same basic DNA, we all live in the same planet, and we all share the same hopes and fears, for the most part. But as a sociology and a history student, I cannot deny that some people, owing to their accumulated experiences, are different. This is not to say they are better or worse, but simply to say different. They don't think the way normal people do, and I sometimes wonder if I'm that way.

But then I stop thinking this way, because I cannot take the idea seriously. As different as I may be, I share more in common with my fellow human beings that I hold differences. I may have more emotional control than most people -- which isn't saying much -- but I relate to people more often than I am confused by them. The specific exceptions are exceptions, not the rule. Were I so perplexed by everyone, I would be in poor shape indeed.

The conclusion I seem to be reaching, at least for my self, is to realize that the way other people mistreat me is not my concern: if they treat others as they treat me, they are bound to regret it and perhaps learn to change their ways. I help neither myself nor them by focusing on the issue: how they treat me is beyond my control. The best I can do is simply continue to treat them with cordiality: I may no longer trust them, and I may no longer be as open with them as I have been in times past, but I will at least be cordial. They may notice my withdrawl, and they may not. I predict they won't. We'll see what happens.

11 November 2008

The Fruits of the (Humanist) Spirit

“Nothing human is alien to me.” - Karl Marx

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

During the summer I visited my parents and noted that a verse from “Galatians” in the Christian bible was stitched on a throw pillow. The phrase in particular was “Through love, serve one another”. On the face of it, it was a sentiment I could identify with -- I am a humanist, after all, and believe in Woodrow Wilson’s statement that ‘there is no higher religion than human service.’ While I am not religious, I believe religions were created by people to serve particular functions, and that one of those functions is to promote values -- and some of those values are bound to be good, just as some of them are bound to be rotten. As such, I like to read religious texts and beat the bad ideas out of them -- adding the good stuff that’s left to my own worldview.

Even so, I normally avoid the New Testament because of the cultural chauvinists who associate themselves with it. By this, I do not mean all Christians -- merely those who raised in a "Christian" culture and are obnoxious about it, even if their own worldviews aren't very "Christian" at all. Despite this, however, there must still be good to be found in the motley collection of books Christians call the "New Testament" -- regardless of the people who claim it inspires them.

When I re-read the “Fruits of the Spirit” in Galatians, I found myself surprised. Stripped of their supernaturalistic elements, these “fruits” have anagrams in my own worldview. As I began compare and contrast these values with my own, I thought I should share them for those who may not be aware.

1. Love:
- Christian: those who are sincere about their religion try to practice agape love, or “God’s love”. These Christians see their god as loving people unconditionally and believe that people ‘filled with the Spirit of god’ should be able to love people unconditionally.
- Humanist: Humanism as a life stance is rooted in both reason and empathy. The American Humanist Association partially defines humanism as “a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion.” What is the source of this empathy and compassion? Human beings, as mammals, are naturally given toward forging social ties -- especially with kin. We protect our family, or who we see as our family. The mapping of the human genome has proven that human beings are overwhelmingly more alike than not. Humanists by large see the entire body of humanity as one huge family, six billion strong, and thus feel natural empathy toward any human being in physical or emotional pain -- and experience feelings of kinship with all.

2. Joy:
- Christian: “Joy”, or invincible happiness that is not subject to random happenings, is supposed to be a natural gift from God. To quote a pastor I remember from my teenage years, “Happiness is based on happenings; joy is not.” This joy is typically associated with being saved.
- Humanist: I never fully understood the concept above until early 2006, when I began explore philosophy. I discovered in 2006 a source of inner joy -- or I should say sources. The root, I suppose, is a love for life. I am sometimes intoxicated by how happy I am, bewildered even. I cannot articulate why -- except to say that I have no reason to be otherwise. There is no kind of music that I can’t enjoy to some degree, no moment that I can’t seize and find some satisfaction in. Part of my own source of joy is a kind of stoicism, or realizing that I can’t control everything that happens to me -- and that I’m okay with that. (For more elaboration, I wrote an essay over a year ago entitled “All and Enough: Humanist Spirituality”.)

3. Peace:
- Christian: peace, or spiritual tranquility, is supposed to result from a relationship with God.
- Humanist: I see joy and peace as being part of the same essence. My own peace comes from the Stoic influences on humanism, or at least the influences I see. I believe that emotional maturity begins when someone realizes two things: one, that they cannot control everything; two, that they only thing they can ultimately control is their own self. When I realize that I am the master of my responses to what happens to me, and when I exercise that mastery, I maintain inner peace -- emotional stability.

4. Patience:
- Christian: Patience is fairly self-explanatory. Christian emphasis on patience seems to be on withstanding persecution or opposition.
- Humanist: Humanism is not a prescriptive worldview: there are no Ten Commandments, Four Noble Truths, Five Pillars, or list of “fruits of the Spirit”. The foundation of the worldview or “life stance” of humanism is reason and empathy, both of which come natural to human beings in various degrees and thus are not really prescribed -- just naturally practiced. As such, there’s no direct anagram but one can be derived from both reason and empathy. It is both rational and a practice of empathy to be patient, as it is to endure what one must. On the subject of “what one must”, you can read Stoic influences. I’ve read that Paul of Tarsus -- who wrote Galatians -- was influenced by Stoicism, which would not surprise me. Zeno -- the first Stoic -- preceded Paul by some 350+ years, and the early stoics believed in a universal being. (Stoicism, like all worldviews, is subject to interpretation. Marcus Aurelius, who inspires many of my own ideas, believed in the Roman pantheon -- not a universal spirit.) A quotation from Aurelius that applies toward patience is this: “Men exist for the sake of one another; teach them, then, or bear with them.”

5. Kindness:
- Christian: I’ve never actually heard a commentary on kindness by a pastor, so I have to wing this. I’m going to guess that kindness is “love in action” -- dealing with people justly and with compassion.
- Humanism: Kindness, of course, is central to humanism. I cannot exaggerate the influence that simple kindnesses have had on my own life: acts of kindness by a few people I knew in my youth inspired me to live in a spirit of empathy, which led to something of a rebirth for me. When I deal with people, I try to do in a spirit of loving kindness toward them -- which is not always easy with certain personalities.

6: Goodness:
- Christian: What is goodness? Again, this is something I’ve not heard much of a commentary on. The only universal definition of goodness I can think of -- one that applies to any worldview, from the best to the very worst, is this: how well do you fare when judged by your ideals? In a Christian worldview, a “good” person would be someone who lives in love, with perfect faith in their god, who strives to obey the guidance of their god who is supposed to be the ultimate ideal -- all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present, etc.
- Humanist: The universal definition I used was “How well do you fare when judged by your ideals?” A humanist worldview, founded on reason and empathy, would define a good person as someone who lived in love and who strives to find truth with and live using reason.

7. Faithfulness:
- Christian: Interpretations vary. A faithful person is someone who keeps the faith, which is important in Christianity. It can also mean that someone who is faithful can be relied upon.
- Humanist: “Faith” has no real counterpart in humanism, it being a rational worldview that eschews emotional appeals that have no grounding in reason. Humanism is an optimistic worldview, however, and so it may be said that some humanists are faithfully hopeful.

8. Gentleness/Meekness:
- Christian: I’ve heard varying interpretations for this. One I’ve heard (and don’t particularly find helpful) is that meekness means to be humble and live subject to guidance from the pastor and God. This particular interpretation came from an authoritarian pastor, which will come as no great surprise. Another interpretation -- one that is basic and seems to be more helpful -- that being “gentle” is a combination of being both loving and peaceful -- to be motivated to help and so control one’s passions to further that end, without allowing strong emotions to endanger that goal.

- Humanist: When “winging” it and contemplating on the definition in the Christian section, I tend to rely on my own thoughts and then interpret them based on what I know of Christian doctrine. My own view, then, is my own thoughts without the Christian swing to it. I believe in dealing with people with a gentle and considerate manner. There are times when no amount of consideration on your part is going to help matters, but I find it’s a good idea to stick to ideals even in those cases just for the practice.

9. Self-Control
- Christian: Christian beliefs hold that humanity is basically corrupt and tempted constantly by carnal nature and the Devil to sin against God. Christians are to practice self control and abstain from worldly pleasures - -sex, alcohol, strong expressions of emotion (the use of strong language), etc. In a broader, more philosophical sense, this can be seen as evidence of stoicism.
- Humanist: Humanists believe that people contain within them the rational ability to abstain from doing evil -- to restrain our primitive, animal passions and treat one another civilly. My own worldview is both humanist and Stoic, and I am quite keen on self-control. I control my thoughts, and spent much time in consideration while trying to figure out a good way to respond to issues of life. I believe self control is crucial to peace of mind.

My rediscovery of the “Fruits of the Spirit” tells me that Christian philosophy and humanist philosophy need not be considered foes. Both philosophies, I believe, come from the same spirit -- the human spirit -- and thus are more alike than they are different. The problem is that the Christian religion often gets in the way of Christian philosophy.

03 November 2008

The Fate of Democracy in the US II: A Solution?

In my last article I identified what I think are two problems with the American political system:
  1. Political power, ideally in the hands of the voting public, is not and cannot be realized by that public because of a lack of actual information. Actual power is instead in the hands of those who control the information the public receives through advertisements and special-interest pamphlets.
  2. Actual power in the hands of the politicians is not often used for the common good. Politicians are beholden to campaign contributors and to the whims of the voting public -- uninformed, fickle, and often irrational. They cannot promote unpopular legislation for fear of losing their jobs, and they often make bad decisions purely to maintain their office.
I believe money is the root of the problem -- and so my solution is to remove it from the political equation as much as possible. End campaigning -- period. Advertising has no place in politics. There should be no television ads, no radio spots, no promotional political material from any special interest group, no pulpit commentary -- nothing. If money can influence a medium, the medium is unsuitable for the democratic process. In one fell swoop, we remove the main cause of political corruption: money. People can no longer be motivated by attack ads: their fears cannot be preyed upon. The politicians and interest groups will have no medium through which to lie. Because they no longer have to spend so much time cajoling the public, they can do their jobs. Because they no longer have to compromise their integrity to raise money, they can do their jobs more effectively. Democracy can become a public affair -- not a privatized, money-driven affair.

How are voters to make informed decisions in this new system? I propose a new way to manage and distribute information -- a rationalization of the democratic process. People who want to run for any given office must submit an election dossier -- a summary of their relevant qualifications, their stances on the issues, an explanation of why they think a given issue is important, and so on -- to a new "Voter Information Office". This office, before which all are equal, adds a summary of that person's voting record (if they have held office before) to the dossier, and all dossiers are made available online a year before the election. In this way, politicians stand on their own records and their own opinions -- not compromised by or to party interests, money, or lies. The dossiers can also be augmented by information from independent fact-checking institutions. A year should allow plenty of time for the voters to access and analyze all relevant information to make their decision. If necessary, we can have a two-day holiday season before the election day for voters to make last-minute decisions.

We can supplement this with televised town-hall meetings, although this could be ungainly if there are a large number of people running for the same office. Small local elections like mayor, city council member, and school board member can have actual town-hall meetings taking place in auditoriums and so forth. Positions for larger cities, state offices, and national offices would have to have televised forums in which the candidates debate. This would be very ungainly and hard to work out, not to mention the risk of giving charismatic people an upper hand. This is not a necessary part of my proposal, nor is it even a part I particularly like: it's a supplement, and that's all. It would only give the people an idea of who they were voting for, as well as given the candidates an opportunity to explain their stances more.

What about referendums? That is where televised forums become a necessity, I think. Whoever proposes a referendum can use the opportunity to explain why s/he believes the voters should vote "Yes" on it, and an opposition speaker will explain why the voters should vote "No". They can debate, then -- these two people or teams of people. These forums would be promoted, then televised or aired on radio stations. Television and radio stations could be compensated for the airtime or simply be made to do it as civic duty. I think the smaller, more financially unstable stations could be compensated, while the larger ones can just be told to do it or face losing their license.

The above is my major idea, but I do have three lesser ones. The first is to rationalize the election process by thinning out unnecessary elections. Do we really need to elect coroners and county sheriffs? Shouldn't those be experience-based, appointed positions? There are far too many positions to vote for, in my opinion. We should allow the voters to focus on the important ones -- city, state, and national positions -- not petty stuff like county coroner.

The second is to create better voters. Suffrage should not be universally granted: it should be earned. We do not allow people to drive unless they've proven they are familiar with the laws that apply to them on the road and have proven that they are familiar with the handling of a vehicle via a road test. The same should be true of voters. Beginning at age sixteen, anyone can qualify to become a voter providing they pass a series of tests on their national and state constitutions. "Current Events" classes should be added to our curriculum. People should know the law of the land. I live in a state with a spectacularly dismal constitution, and believe that if more people were familiar with it, we would be able to gain widespread support to reform it.

The third is to create better politicians by emphasizing education and public administration. I believe presidents should be well-informed of matters of history, science, economics, sociology, and geography -- for starters. Governors should know about science, economics, and geography. Mayors should know about economics, urban geography, and the importance of urban planning. School board presidents should be familiar with the importance of the scientific method, the importance of history, and the importance of education in general. I read recently that there is a university project just beginning: its intention is to be a university focused on education relating to public administrators. This pleased me because it's an idea I've held for quite some time now.

There is another idea, not my own, that says people should be able to propose legislation directly. This is called the National Initiative for Democracy, and it is something I am looking into.

That concludes my thoughts on how to make democracy better in this country*. I think reforming the process is a must: we live in a very different country from the one our forefathers conceived, and we need a system that takes the effect of money-culture and the mass media into effect. While the rationalization of democracy that I propose above will not be perfect, I believe it's a big step in the right direction.

* Of course, if we taught our children to be rational, we wouldn't need all of this -- but then where would businesses, corrupt religious figures (like Jimmy Swaggart) and so forth be? Life just wouldn't be fun without ghost stories, Santa Clause, horoscopes, and dare I say organized religions.

These two essays have been my attempt to articulate the problems of the current US political system and what I think we can do to change it. Neither my analysis of the problem nor my solution to it are necessarily perfect -- perfection is impossible. I think my analysis is fairly spot-on, but I'm not so sure about my major idea, that of removing money from the political equation and replacing it with a rational information management system.

The Fate of Democracy in the US I: The Problem

I have grown increasingly concerned about the status of 'democracy' in the United States. There are two major problems that I can see:

(1) Political power, ideally in the hands of the voting public, is not realized owing to insufficient access to information. The majority of the voting public consists of fully-employed adults who spend forty to sixty hours a week working and commuting. In addition, they must tend to family affairs -- bill-paying, school functions, house maintenance, automobile maintenance, time with children, shopping for groceries, etc. -- and to their own personal needs for rest and relaxation. This leaves them with precious little time with which to access and analyze information. Voters are expected to vote for presidents, vice presidents, senators, representatives, judges, tax commissioners, school board members, clerks, coroners -- the list goes on. They are also expected to vote on a long list of referendums, most of which they've never heard of until the ballot is in their hands. Because they have no time, they are forced to depend on other sources to retrieve and analyze information for them -- namely, television advertisements and "information" distributed by special interests groups like PETA and "traditional values" lobbyists.

Television advertisements are a poor way indeed to distribute information. Our society's problems are complicated. They demand and deserve thoughtful analysis and commentary. Voting records serve more consideration than "Representative Schmuck: Conservative, Christian Values" Or "Representative Joe Schmuck: are his LIBERAL values yours?" Television advertisements are short and sensation -- and yet even if people don't believe them, they are still influenced by them. People readily believe what they want to hear, and there's a killing to be made by capitalizing on that. I find it obscene that the voting public is informed by television -- a medium completely dominated by money, where "truth" is just a facade with no substance. Political advertising, like all advertising, is organized lying. The exceptions prove the rule. Special interest pamphlets and mailings are also very problematic. Because special interests typically focus only one or two key issues, they must harp on it to mobilize their voting base. They do this by ignoring other and often more important issues. The role played by special interest groups make it possible to succeed in electing one-trick ponies -- candidates who work for them on that issue, but are incompetent otherwise. Advertising sabotages the ideal that people vote in their best interests by presenting them with limited, biased, or false information. They are manipulated into voting for the ADVERTISERS' best interest, for the lobbyists' special interests -- not for their own.

We find ourselves in a situation where the voters have no power because they cannot make informed decisions for themselves: they are dependent on information fed to them by advertisements and special interest promotional material.

2. Actual political power, as held by politicians, is often misused or not used by the politicians in the interests of the common good, and this is so because of the system that we use. Representative democracy, capitalism, and the influence of the media have resulted in a combination that is not beneficial t to the common good. By themselves, democracy and capitalism are not bad ideas: together, though, and coupled with the power of the mass media, they make it possible for the peoples' interest to be completely ignored.

The United States is not an actual democracy: it is a representative democracy, where the voters send in proxies to do the voting for them. Ideally, this would work: the politicians are supposed to be professional civic administrators who decide what is best and do it. Voters can't even handle elections every two years -- let alone making decisions every day. We create the jobs of senator and representative so that there will be people whose only responsibility is to collect information on a situation, analyze the consequences of it, and act in a way that is conducive to the "promotion of the general welfare". If they do not do this well, ideally, they are removed from office and replaced by someone who the electors think is more competent.

This is not the case. The founding fathers never envisioned universal suffrage and the mass media. To borrow from Neil Postman, they created a constitution that envisioned a relatively small number of men making rational choices to serve their best interests -- not millions of people voting based on emotional appeals and out-and-out lying that constitute television ads and special-interest circulars. The result is the enslavement of democracy by money. I'll explain what I mean by that.

While democracy has always been a servant of money, so much money is now available that democracy has become an actual slave. The majority of campaign contributions to go advertisement -- organized lying. Each politician must counter the slander produced by the other side and produce slander of his or her own. Advertising costs money -- and money comes from business interests and special interest groups. Promises are made to them. Who wins? Whoever lies the best and whoever produces these advertisements. Who loses? The American people, whose interests have been subverted in favor of lobbyists and selfish businesspeople.

While democracy has always been the servant of monied interests -- witness the American and French revolutions -- so much capital is now available that democracy has become a complete slave. The majority of campaign contributions to advertising, which is just organized lying. Even if the advertisers don't intend to lie, the medium of television limits them to soundbytes. Polticians have to counter the lies the other side tells about them with their own lies. It takes a lot of money to advertise on television, especially during primetime or peak hours. Lobbyists and political action committees provide an easy source of revenue -- obtainable for promises of favorable legislation. Politicans whore their office and responsibility out to whoever can provide the money, just so that they can keep their offices. Who wins? Whoever lies the best, and whatever lobbyist supports the best liar. Who loses? The American people.

Not only has democracy become a slave to money, but it has become a slave to the whims of the public. To be frank, people do not always not what is best. We would like to think that we do, and we take umbrage when some 'elitist' implies that we aren't -- but consider! Consider that if people make judgments based on limited, poor, false, or biased information, they are tremendously liable to make bad decisions. Considering the mediums through which they typically get their information, why are we surprised to find ourselves in trouble?

Elections have become sheep-calling contests, with the contending politicians and their supporters yelling out buzzwords. The buzzwords change rapidly. I remember watching the political conventions, where one of the main issues was immigration. It dominated one particular Republican debate -- and yet now, we hear nothing about it, and we heard nothing about it before the economic crisis. We hear nothing of Iraq -- but people are still dying. The government there is still unstable. Why do we not hear of these issues?

I believe it is because of this problem that the citizenry are motivated chiefly by emotionalism and whims. Politicians who are running for election cease to do their jobs -- they are too busy campaigning, too busy making speeches and cajoling the populace. Their problem is that the populace gets tired of hearing the same words over and over again, so they have to move on to new ones. Politicians, in order to maintain their positions, must constantly cajole. They must constantly compromise the purpose of their office to obtain funds so they can do this -- and so concerned are they about losing their posts that they fear making unpopular choices that will evict them from office. Bear in mind that unpopular decisions are not necessarily bad, nor are popular decisions necessarily good.

The result of these two factors -- an uninformed voting public and the constantly compromised nature of political offices -- is a broken system. When James Madison and others wrote the Constitution, they could have never imagined the industrial revolution and the generation of more capital that has ever been witnessed in the history of humankind. They could have never imagined cheap newspapers, radios or television -- they never imagined a system where business interests could simply buy political advertising, lie to the voters, and protect their enormous profits. Had our Constitution been written in 1976, I believe it would have been quite a bit different.

How do we mend this system? How do we set it right? Is there a essential crack that we can fill with mortar and restore stability? I think there is -- and I believe the flaw is money. Remember how much voters rely on advertising, which is paid for by monied interests. Remember that advertising consumes the lion's share of campaign contributions. The money required -- $3 billion in the presidential election alone -- comes at the price of making promises: not promises to the voters with their divided interests, but promises to the people who have the money and only the interest of maximizing their own profit. We thus have both ill-informed voters and compromised politicians being unable to fulfill their potential. They are hindered by the inordinate role of money in our political system.

My solution is to remove money from that system as much as possible -- and I write on that here.

29 October 2008

Life After Peak Oil: Response

Tonight I attended a lecture entitled "Life After Peak Oil", given by James Howard Kunstler, an author and social critic who predicts that life as we know it will be radically different when we run out of oil. Going into how much oil has impacted the way we live could fill books -- and has, in all likelihood. Because society in the United States is structured on the availability of easy energy, society will have to be restructured when that energy is no longer available.

Kunstler began the lecture by discussing what "peak oil" meant. "Peak oil" is that moment when the world is producing and refining as much oil as it possibly can -- with production declining from there. Kunstler maintains that just as society was changed as oil production rose -- industrialization, urbanization, post-industrialization, suburbanization, etc -- it will change again as oil production declines and we exhaust our resources. He said that no one energy source and no collection of energy sources -- natural gas, coal, biofuel, nuclear energy, etc -- were going to allow us to maintain "normalcy". "I'll go so far as to predict that in 37 years, the airline industry will no longer exist as we know it." was one quotation.

We are facing a crisis, he says, a long emergency, one that will require hard work and determination if we are to come through it all right in the end. He stated that while most people acknowledged the need for change, what they wanted was minor changes that did not require much of an effort on their part -- changes that did not disturb the feeling of normalcy. He gave two obstacles to being able to change: wishful thinking and the religion of 'free money' -- the idea of getting something for nothing.

His predictions for what will happen are interesting. Intriguing in some ways, horrifying in others. Suburbia -- masses of people living in great fields of subdivisions, connected to their job only by the freeway system, engaged in long commutes, living in a society of sprawl with no real "centers" to create the idea of community -- will die. Kunstler believes that any new suburban developments we see in the near future will be nothing more than the twitching of a corpse.

Kunstler predicts that life will become more local as the automobile's presence in our daily lives fades. Since the vast tracts of farmland that provide our food have to be serviced by oil-using tractors to be of use, and since that food has to be transported from the farmlands to everyone else, the way we grow our food will change. He predicts that more people will become engaged in farming and that draft animals will be used again. The big box stores -- the strip malls, the Wal-Marts -- will die, and local businesses will revive, making the city centers important again. School systems built to taken in students across the county will break down, leading to smaller local schools and homeschooling in some cases. Kunstler said that in the future it's possible that most people won't be able to go beyond an eighth-grade education. He talked about "New Urbanism", a movement that intends to create urban societies built to "human" scale -- not automobile scale. He also predicts that the former middle class will respond with panic and rage at the decline of their livelihoods. In general, the more large-scale organizations will decay, while smaller-scale outfits and cities will be able to cope.

I cannot deny that as I sat there listening, I was both disturbed and perversely attracted to some of what he was saying. I do think people would be happier living in more local communities built to be good places to live in -- but such a society would have massive drawbacks, and I'll return to that in a moment. What he was saying held an almost religious signification, one impossible to ignore. The old order -- built on the empty promise of free energy, built around a lie, destroyed by factual corruption, giving way to a new order -- a restoration of what had once been, what was supposed to be. It's a secular doomsday scenario. While religious scenarios see society destroyed by the corruption of sin, followed by the restoration of proper living and morality, this scenario sees society undermined by a dependence on "free energy" and a return to "simpler" living, to 'sustainability'. And part of me is attracted to the idea of people producing what they need, being able to enjoy their lives more because they're no longer distracted by long commutes and cubicles and all of that.

This return to simpler times, though, is as a friend described it after the lecture -- "nostalgic bullshit". If we run out of oil -- something that is hard to imagine, but something that's a real possibility -- life as we know it will undergo a change, unless we do find some radical new way to maintain normalcy within certain bounds. If our societies undergo collapse, people aren't going to make out all right. They're going to starve, and many of those who remain will lead dismal lives. Exploitation is ubiquitious. The analogy I am tempted to draw (as a student of history) is that of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The Empire did not perish simply as a result of a great battle against the Germans: it decayed over a period of time internally, through economic rot. When it passed away into oblivion, the cities that depended on the Empire for their livelihood -- cities created around Roman garrisons, for instance -- vanished. The only ones that remained were those that had existed before, or were able to be independent of the empire. An empire faded, replaced by hundreds upon hundreds of petty kingdoms -- leaving a new society in place, one profoundly influenced by the old society but one still quite different in its wake. It took centuries for civilization to recover.

Could it be possible that we are living at the beginning of our own society's decay? Will all of our dreams for the future -- global unity, the exploration of space, the dreams of science fiction -- be replaced by a reality reminiscent of pre-oil industrialism? It almost seems like fantasy, and indeed Kunstler has even written a book called A World Made By Hand depicting what life will be like in a world after peak oil. According to the reviews I've read, it is not romantic in nature -- it depicts the rise of petty warlords and crime. Are we really facing another 'dark age'? I like to take social and urban geography classes, and once during a lecture on the Neomalthusians (those who predict food shortages presaging a collapse of our society) and the Technocrats (those who believe technology will continue to create ways of coping), I depicted the two sides as angry men preaching at one another. The Neomalthusian screams "GLOOM! DESTRUCTION!" and the Technocrat yells "SUPER TECHNOLOGY!"

Is Kunstler just preaching gloom as a way of promoting his romantic own vision of the future? I think it's possible that he's just preaching gloom, but if his book is as gritty as the reviews say, then I don't think he's very romantic about what life will be like -- even if some aspects of it are attractive. I don't know what to say about his predictions, but if they are true it will mean drastic change. My own political ideals (public education, universal healthcare, fair treatment of workers, etc) are rather dependent on a large-scale government -- one that would not survive a collaspe like this. My own ideas would have to be rethought if these predictions prove true. Then again, it may be possible that the decline of oil will be slow enough that we do find ways of maintaing normalcy within a given range -- for better or for worse.

Here's a 20-minute lecture by Kunstler on YouTube. It's on "The Tragedy of Suburbia".

24 October 2008

Èmilie Carles, Humanist

Recently I had the occasion to read A Life of Her Own, the memoirs of a French woman born into a nearly medieval world -- an agricultural village in the southern French Alps called Val-des-Prés. She was born as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, but her world had not changed its social structure since the days of Charlemagne. For most in her village, the village itself is all they know. The world outside is distant, far removed the affairs of the villagers' lives. Their lives are not their own -- subject to the fickleness of the weather and the actions of their governing mayor, who is "elected" again and again because there is no one to run against him. The people of Val-des-Prés distrust education and look on book-reading as something foreign as suspicious.

Èmilie Carles is different, however. From an early age she realizes a love for books that is unmatched by anyone else in her village. She reads anything she can acess, and develops a sharp mind that does not escape the attention of her teachers -- who reccommend to her father that Èmilie be allowed to continue her education and fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher. Her father, while strictly medieval himself, is reluctant until she is offered a scholarship. While Èmilie continues to learn from schoolbooks, she also learns from the affairs of life. The Great War comes to France in 1914, and she witnesses its horrors. Conversations with her soldiering brothers and anarchist cousin force her to think about the inhumanity of the war, and she begins to develop her own worldview. Her worldview develops apart from religion, for she explains that her faith in God is lost in the aftermath of the Great War. She freely describes herself as an atheist later in the book -- hard to imagine for a young woman born in a mountain village without electricity or library access!

Her worldview develops throughout the book, and becomes one I can safely describe as humanist. Èmilie values arriving at the truth for herself, by reasoning things out. So committed to this is she that she encourages her own students to do this, even allowing them to question her. She also instructs them to love life, and to deal with one another more kindly. She sees her job as a teacher as a duty to mold young minds that can be happy and live freely -- free from being told what to think, free to enjoy their lives their own way.

Teaching youngsters to read and write is one thing, it is important but not sufficient. I have always had a loftier notion of school -- the role of the school and teacher. In my view, children take stock of the world and society in the communal school: Later on, whatever their trade, whatever direction their lives take, it is too late, the mold is already set. If it is good, so much the better. If not, nothing further can be done.

In a backward region like ours, considering the life I had led, what seemed indispensable to me was opening their minds to life, shattering the barriers that shut them in, making them understand that the earth is round, finite, and varied, and that each individual, white, black, yellow, has the right -- and the duty -- to think and decide for himself. I myself had learned as much through life as through study. That is why I could not judge my pupils solely on the basis of their schoolwork, and why I also took into account they way they behaved in their daily lives. For example, I never hid the fact that every last one of them would have to face social reality, and that when all was said and done, they would have to work for a living. But at the same time, I put them on their guard against abuses. I told them that a man must defend himself against exploitation and the stultifying effect of work. I also told them:

'The most important thing for a young person is to choose a trade he likes and enjoys, otherwise he will be a slave, unhappy and consumed with rage."

To conclude this line of argument, I always spoke to them about liberty, repeating that our famous Liberty should not simply be a word inscribed on pediments along with Equality and Fraternity -- those basic Rights of Man, an abstract and illusory liberty -- but rather that it should be a reality for each one of them.

'Beware of politicians, beware of silver-tongued orators, do your utmost to judge for yourself, and above all, take advantage of the beauty life offers."

Èmilie eventually marries another free-thinking individual, and they are careful not to become hypocrites. Èmilie describes her husband Jean Carles as an idealist who doesn't tolerate any gap between what he says and what he does -- and so they are careful as parents not to become hypocrites. They allow their children to think and decide for themselves. As the book wears on, her worldview continues to develop. She is a pacifist, certainly, and by our standards a humanist. She also has socialist 'leanings' by which I mean she is an internationalist, a sharp critic of consumerism, and someone who believes in equality. The beauty of her ideas, especially her humanist ones, is that she developed them without much input from outside. She had no humanist teachers, read no books on the subject. So natural are the ideas of humanism -- love for humanity, recognition of the importance of reason and compassion -- that she came into them largely on her own. Her story was superbly written and I enjoyed every moment of it. Here are a selection of quotations from the book -- do enjoy.
I believe it is splendid to leave life with the thought that you have done the maximum possible to defend the ideas you believe just and human, and to help those who need to be helped without discrimination. For me, that is a wonderful feeling.

With a work day of five or four hours, unemployment would be eliminated and everyone could have a job. Let us learn to live simply; [...] Let us learn to make use of our leisure time, get as close to nature as possible. Let us learn to read, because reading means strengthening our minds through the minds of others, steeping our hearts with feelings that please, and struggling with an author according to whether our ideas and feelings agree with his or diverge. Learn to live by knowing how to live and let live. Never take anything in life but flowers, and from flowers, only the perfume: drop the religion that has the largest numbers of followers; I am talking about the religion of money. A Belgian writer has said: Power of goodness and gentleness, it is you who should rule the Earth. Alas, that currency is altogether too ideal to circulate on our planet..." That is not true: fortunately, there are people for whom it is real. I know couples and families where it is the only currency in circulation, and it is beautiful, it is splendid, and we must all reach toward it for so long as we shall live.

I know perfectly well I'll be called a Utopian. It's true! And I say: why not? We must have utopias so that one day they may become realities. Less than a century ago, social security, unemployment benefits, and paid vacations were utopias: today we have them and everyone takes it for granted. The same is true for everything: what for the moment seems unattainable will be tomorrow's reality. With less selfishness, less indifference, we are bound to achieve greater justice, greater equality among people. But we must fall two work immediately, expecting nothing from our elite bureaucrats."

No to violence. no to injustice. Yes to pacifism and all that is Human. Too bad if that sounds like a slogan: for me is is a slogan of love. I have believed in it, and believe in it still and always, until the last breath of my life.

12 October 2008

A Thought or Two for Consideration

I recently read these two thoughts from Seneca the Younger, a Stoic whose works I am interested in reading.

We are mad, not only individually, but nationally. We check manslaughter and isolated murders; but what of war and the much-vaunted crime of slaughtering whole peoples? There are no limits to our greed, none to our cruelty. And as long as such crimes are committed by stealth and by individuals, they are less harmful and less portentous; but cruelties are practised in accordance with acts of senate and popular assembly, and the public is bidden to do that which is forbidden to the individual. Deeds that would be punished by loss of life when committed in secret, are praised by us because uniformed generals have carried them out. Man, naturally the gentlest class of being, is not ashamed to revel in the blood of others, to wage war, and to entrust the waging of war to his sons, when even dumb beasts and wild beasts keep the peace with one another. Against this overmastering and widespread madness philosophy has become a matter of greater effort, and has taken on strength in proportion to the strength which is gained by the opposition forces.

We are all chained to fortune: the chain of one is made of gold, and wide, while that of another is short and rusty. But what difference does it make? The same prison surrounds all of us, and even those who have bound others are bound themselves; unless perchance you think that a chain on the left side is lighter. Honors bind one man, wealth another; nobility oppresses some, humility others; some are held in subjection by an external power, while others obey the tyrant within; banishments keep some in one place, the priesthood others. All life is slavery. Therefore each one must accustom himself to his own condition and complain about it as little as possible, and lay hold of whatever good is to be found near him. Nothing is so bitter that a calm mind cannot find comfort in it. Small tablets, because of the writer's skill, have often served for many purposes, and a clever arrangement has often made a very narrow piece of land habitable. Apply reason to difficulties; harsh circumstances can be softened, narrow limits can be widened, and burdensome things can be made to press less severely on those who bear them cleverly.

08 October 2008


I recently read The Loss of the S.S. Titanic, the titular disaster being one of my pet interests, and was startled to read the following passage:

Sailors are proverbially superstitious; far too many people are prone to follow their lead, or, indeed, the lead of any one who asserts a statement with an air of conviction and the opportunity of constant repetition; the sense of mystery that shrouds a prophetic utterance, particularly if it be an ominous one (for so constituted apparently is the human mind that it will receive the impress of an evil prophecy far more readily than it will that of a beneficent one, possibly through subservient fear to the thing it dreads, possibly through the degraded, morbid attraction which the sense of evil has for the innate evil in the human mind) leads many people to pay a certain respect to superstitious theories. Not that they wholly believe in them or would wish their dearest friends to know they ever gave them a second thought; but the feeling that other people do so and the half-conviction that there "may be something in it, after all" sways them into tacit obedience to the mostly absurd and childish theories.

This book was published in 1912 (the year of the disaster) by a science teacher, Lawrence Beesely. You can read it online for free at Project Gutenberg.

24 September 2008

Washington's Rules of Civility

Recently I read through George Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. The book is quite small and contains a list of 110 rules. Most are common table manners (don't clean your teeth at the table, for instance) and many are holdovers from a now-dead era and deal with how to treat one's social inferiors and betters. I don't consider the people in the Social Register to be my betters by any stretch of the imagination -- and I don't see myself as better than people living under bridges and overpasses. I enjoyed reading some of the rules, though, and I wrote them down.
  • Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another, though he were your enemy.
  • When you see a crime punished, you may outwardly pleased, but always show pity toward the suffering offender.
  • Be no flatterer; neither play with any that delights not to be played with.
  • Use no reproachful language against any one; neither curse nor revile.
  • Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.
  • Associate yourself with men of good quality, if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company.
  • Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for it is a sign of a tractable and commendable nature; and in all cases of passion admit reason to govern.
  • Speak not injurious words, neither in jest or in earnest scoff at none though they give occasion.
  • Speak not evil of the absent, for it is unjust.
  • Labour to keep alive in your breast that little celestial fire called conscience.

17 September 2008

McCain, Palin, Opportunism, and Democracy

Until recently, I wasn't paying much attention to the upcoming presidential election. I've become increasingly more cynical about the state of democracy and liberty in the United States, and remain unconvinced that either candidate can or will turn things around. I wasn't even sure who I was going to vote for, since until recently I couldn't honestly support one candidate over the other. I was thinking of writing in Mike Gravel, myself, or Marcus Aurelius. But recent events have compelled me to make a decision, and I'll probably be enabling the two-party system again this November.

Until recently, I was pretty much OK with John McCain. He was far from ideal, but considering what the Republican party gives us to work with, he looked like a bastion of integrity, civility, and reasonableness by comparison. I wouldn't mind if he lost to Obama, but my world wouldn't fall apart if he became the president. It's not as if I'm entirely comfortable with the idea of Obama being president, either. As said, until recently I was pretty much "eh" on the election. When it came to my decision of whether I should vote my conscious (Marcus Aurelius) or vote for Obama came down to one question: how far will McCain go to appease the religious right -- the supporters of Pat Robertson, the happily late Jerry Falwell, and the rest of that gang who decry every scientific advance since Galileo as "Satanic" and who think homosexuals are demon-possessed?

In recent decades, this group has become a political force to be reckoned with. As a result of decades of pandering to this group of uninformed peasants, it is now impossible to be elected without payng lip-service to the state god. This situation is a violation of Article VI of the Constitution, but who cares about that quaint little document? I realized that if McCain wanted to be elected, he had to pander to this group. I know that referring to these people as uninformed peasants sounds snobbish and elitist, and it is -- and with good reason. I want my broken bones set by doctors who know what they're doing; I want criminals pursued by police officers who know what they're doing; and I want my laws passed by people who know what they're doing -- and I do not think for one moment that people who think the Earth is six thousand years old can be trusted to choose the people who will deliberate on education standards. These people believe sickness and homosexuality are the result of demonic forces and they want to elect people who are in charge of health and medicine? Call me elitist if you will, but I do not want my politicians elected by people whose political opinions are solely informed by commercial television. Yet I see no solution to this problem, which is the reason I've become so cynical about the future of liberty and democracy: its fate is to be decided by mass hysteria.

You can see now why I was apathetic when it came to the election and why my only concern was with John McCain's relationship to the religious right, these lovable peasants whose fathers stopped the Freedom Riders and set their buses on fire and who think that the hypothetical Creator of the universe, with its billions of stars and solar systems, cares about the welfare of a political abstraction on one small continent of one small planet in a backwater galaxy -- and cares about it because It wants worship. Not only are these people wrong, they're insufferably arrogant. To think that Deity would care about the worship of primates!

So a week or so ago, John McCain answered my question and in so doing made an enemy out of me. I don't like being McCain's enemy, but I have no choice. He chose Sarah Palin to be his running mate, and in so doing told me how far he'll go: he will happily bend over and take it in the bum from Ted Haggard. That's how far he'll go. Sarah Palin is inexperienced, and is sure to alienate half the nation and all of the world -- but McCain wants to ensure his victory, so he'll risk her becoming President to get himself elected. It doesn't bother me that he's being a cynical opportunist -- that's American "democracy". Reagan made his bones by being a witch-hunter, after all. What bothers me is that he's so brazen about it. Other cynical politicians at least try to HIDE their opportunism. This guy is brazen about it. His contempt for the American people and reality is impressively massive. What is he going to next? Start flinging Mexican immigrants into "internment camps" to await deportation? What will McCain do to stay in power? I don't want to learn the answer. If he wins, I do not see good things in store for the future of human rights, informed democracy, and liberty -- those liberal values his party despises so much.

03 September 2008

It's Been a Good Life: Asimovian Reflections

Last week I read It's Been a Good Life, written by Isaac Asimov (late author and American Humanist Association honorary president). It was a sheer delight, and I'd like to share some of it.
"To those who are not bookworms, it must be a curious thought that someone would read and read, letting life with all its glory pass by unnoticed, wasting the carefree days of youth, missing the wonderful interplay of muscle and sinew. Thee must seem something sad and even tragic about it, and one might wonder what impels a youngster to do it. But life is glorious when it is happy; days are carefree when they are happy; the interplay of thought and imagination is far superior to that of muscle and sinew. Let me tell you, if you don't it from your own experience, that reading a good book, losing yourself in the interest of words and thoughts, is for some people (me, for instance) an incredibly intensity of happiness." - p. 18

"I have never, not for one moment, been tempted toward religion of any kind. The fact is that I feel no spiritual avoid. I have my philosophy of life, which does not include any aspect of the supernatural and which I find totally satisfying. I am, in short, a rationalist and believe only that which reason tells me is so." - p. 20

"History is the best thing to reread -- and to write. I know history so well that Earth's past is like a rich rapestry to me...in history, everything's one peice. YOu pick up history by any strand and the whole thing comes up." - p. 165

"To learn is to broaden, to experience more, to snatch new aspects of life for yourself. To refuse to learn or to be relieved at not having to learn is to committ a form of suicide; in the long urun, a more meaningful type of suicide than the mere ending of physical life." p. -165

"Knowledge is not only power, it is happiness, and being taught is the intellectual analog of being loved." - p. 165

10 June 2008

This I Believe

I wrote this essay a little over a year ago. It was an attempt to articulate to my friends in the Pentecostal church that I had been raised in what I believed now, without the messy details of deconversion: this essay was to be positive, not negative. I think the essay reflects "me" quite well, and because I am somewhat proud of my accomplishment in being able to articulate my complex worldview in just a few paragraphs, I post it here. I take the name of this essay ("This I Believe") from the NPR program that invites ordinary people to talk about their own personal philosophies.

If someone had asked me what I believed in a few years ago, I would have been hard-pressed to give a sensible and sincere answer. A couple of years ago, however, I began to evaluate myself and life. I began to think on who I was as a person and what I wanted to do with my life. Up until that point in my life, all of the big questions had been answered by the religion I was raised in. Despite my embracing the faith of my parents, I found that I was deeply unhappy and sought the reasons why; and I sought the remedy to my discouragement and weariness. I am happy to report that I did realize why I was unhappy, and I did find the answer to my problems. In the process, I established a new worldview -- one built upon lessons learned in childhood and supported throughout a lifetime of experience.

I believe that the only thing that ever has or ever will matter to us is the needs of humanity. For this reason, I have no sympathy for gods who demand worship and threaten torture. If they are real, then I pity them -- because they are lesser beings than we have grown to be. I have never been attracted to the idea of streets of gold and walls of jasper, but I have longed for Heaven on Earth. It is my heart’s desire to see people united in love for one another -- overcoming the boundaries of language, ethnicity, religion, and nationality. I spurn any idea that promotes divisiveness. Is a united and healthy Earth an impossible ideal? Perhaps, but think how wonderful just realizing part of that ideal would be. It is this idealism, born of love for humanity, that drives me. Because this idealism has served me so well, I give no quarter to ideas that would rob me or other people of that idealism by telling us that we are worthless and depraved or dependent upon anything but ourselves to effect the changes we need to see. That idea is worthless and depraved. I believe in the power of idealism: I believe we can be better than we are, and that we should set goals for ourselves. Even if we don’t reach them, we are made better by our struggle to overcome our failings. To lose faith in ourselves is to die -- as individuals, as a society.

As I see that there is no difference between the needs of myself and the needs of my neighbors -- whether they be next door or across the oceans -- I live my life in the sprit of empathy. I strive to live in love -- to be compassionate and understand the needs of those around me. After all, that’s all that really matters. I want someone’s life to have been improved in some miniscule way by my existence here. This is done in recognition of the fact that ordinary kindnesses from other people have helped me, and I want to improve other people’s lives in the same way that mine has been improved.

Because I recognize that life is fleeting and that regret is rarely satiated, I strive to live my best life now and to realize the potential of each moment; to be as happy sitting at a red-light as I am driving through the countryside on a sunny autumn day. I recognize that I will have good days and I will have bad days -- but I deserve neither. All I can do is appreciate and make the most of each. I do not live in the past or future, but in the present; and I make the most of it. I am in awe of the world that I live in. When I gaze out of my bedroom window and see the lush green of the trees set against the unbroken blue sky, I understand worship. I am delighted by the pursuit of knowledge, because being able to understand the world that I live in enables me to appreciate it all the more.

I see reason as a flaming sword -- not one that keeps us from paradise, but one that allows us to do away with the choking brambles of ignorance and superstition to make paradise. I recognize that the scientific method, that uncompromising search for real answers, is what has helped humanity rise “from the swamp to the stars”. Inspired by what science has achieved, I adopted the principles of freethought in my life and have found my life to be all the better because of this. I recognize that science and reason must be tempered with empathy , because as Paul Johnson once said, “The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas.” The only thing that matters is people -- and that is what I believe.