30 December 2010

Renewed Greetings

I created this blog a bit over four years ago to store some philosophical essays and musings of mine that I created while attempting to sort out my worldview following my exit from Pentecostalism and my discovery of humanism, freethought, and naturalism.  I've since maintained the same essential look, though the sites and blogs I link to have continued to change. I've wanted to change the background look for a while now, so I finally decided to take the leap and upgrade to the new template. Most of my links and blogs from the old look have carried over, though I did finally get around to updating their names and links instead of relying on redirects to do that for me. I also added a blog I've been enjoying for a few weeks now, "The Little Book of Humanity".

The background image is the Stoa of Attalos. This is not the porch from which Zeno taught, but it conveys to me a sense of serenity and peace all the same. The pillars of the Stoa have stood tall in my life for several years now, both literally and philosophically: I used this same image as my personal desktop wallpaper for nearly two years. Stoicism has made me more mindful and free, though I think I may have overdone it at one point. Its focus on the individual as sovereign over his or her own mind has influenced other parts of my worldview, including my growing interest in anarchism.  I've been working on an essay called "From Freethought to Anarchism" that will explore the transition more.

I cannot predict what this blog will look like in the next four years, though I intend to continue philosophical musings and celebrate life and the human spirit. I may continue to explore blogger's template customizer.

25 December 2010

Christmastime All Over the World

Merry Christmas, belated Solstice, Fröhliche Weihnachten, Joyeux Noel, and Feliz Navidad! 

It’s Christmas Time all over the world
It’s Christmas here at home
The church bells chime wherever we roam
Så riktig god jul [Norwegian]
Feliz natal [Portuguese]
Shenoraavor Nor Dari (Dari) [Armenian]
To you

The snow is thick in most of the world
Children's eyes are wide
As old Saint Nick gets ready to ride
So Feliz Navidad !
Sretan Bozic! (Croatian)
And Happy New Year 
To you!

Though the customs might change
And the language is strange
This appeal we feel is real
In Holland or Hong Kong

It's Christmastime all over the world
In places near and far
And so my friend wherever you are
Ein fröhliches Weihnachten! (German)
Kala Christougenna ! (Greek)
Yoi kurisumasu! (Japanese)
This means a very merry Christmas (Christmas, Christmas)
To you 

15 December 2010

Science Saved my Soul

The Apprentice Philosopher recently sent me a video recently and after three viewings I realized I had to share it.   At the beginning of the video, its author recounts an experience he had encountering the Milky Way -- stepping out into the night,  struck by the grandeur and majesty of the Cosmos but being able to appreciate it all the more because of his understanding of modern cosmology.  He then compares this moment of soul-stirring clarity to the feelings religions attempt to reproduce and gain a monopoly on.  As he talks, beautiful imagery and subtle, but effective music plays in the background. It's in the spirit of Carl Sagan's Cosmos and Richard Dawkins' Unweaving the Rainbow.  Selected quotations are below.

The Milky way itself contains 200 billion stars, give or take. These numbers are essential to understanding what a galaxy is, but when contemplating them some part of the human mind protests that 'it cannot be so'.  Yet an examination of the evidence brings you to the conclusion that it is, and if you take that conclusion out on a clear dark night and look up, you might see something that will change your life. This is what a galaxy looks like from the inside -- from the surburbs of our sun. Through binoculars, for every star you can see with your naked eye, you can see a hundred around it, all suspended in a grey-blue mist.  But through a modest telescope, if you wait for your eyes to adjust to the dark, and get the focus just right, you will see that mist for what it really is -- more stars,  like dust, fading into what tastes like infinity.  But you've got to have the knowledge -- seeing is only half of it. 

That night, three years ago, I knew a small part of what's out there -- the kinds of things, the scale of things, the age of things. The violence and destruction, appalling energy, hopeless gravity, and the despair of distance -- but I feel safe, because I know my world is protected by the very distance that others fear. It's like the universe screams in your face: Do you know what I am? How grand I am? How old I am? Can you even comprehend what I am? What are you, compared to me?  And when you know enough science, you can just smile up at the universe and reply, "Dude -- I am you."

When I looked at the galaxy that night, I knew the faintest twinkle of starlight was a real connection between my comprehending eye along a narrow beam of light to the surface of another sun. The photons my eyes detect, the light I see, the energy with which my nerves interact came frm that star. I thought I could never touch it, yet something from it crosses the void and touches me. I might never have known.  My eyes saw only a tiny point of light, but my mind saw so much more. 

There's no word for such experiences that come through scientific and not mystical revelation. The reason for that is that every time someone has such a mind-gasm, religion steals it -- simply by saying, "Ah, you've had a religious experience."

To even partially comprehend the scale of a single galaxy is to almost disappear -- and when you remember all the other galaxies, you shrink one hundred billion times smaller still.  But then you realize what you are -- the same facts that made you feel so insignificant also tell you how you got  here.  It's like you become more real, or maybe the universe becomes more real.  You suddenly fit. You suddenly belong.  You do not have to bow down -- you do not have to look away. In such moments, all you have to do is remember to keep breathing.

The body of a newborn baby is as old as the Cosmos. The form is new and unique, but the materials are 13.7 billion years old -- processed by nuclear fusion in stars, fashioned by electromagnetism. Cold words for amazing processes -- and that baby was you, is you. You're amazing -- not only alive, but with a mind. What fool would exchange this for every winning lottery ticket ever drawn?

When I compare what scientific knowledge has done for me, and what religion tried to do to me, I sometimes literally shiver. Religions tell children they might go to hell and they must believe -- while science tells children that they came from the stars and presents reasoning they can believe.  I've told plenty of young kids about stars, atoms, galaxies and the Big Bang, and I have never seen fear in their eyes -- only amazement and curiosity. They want more.  Why do kids swim in it, and  adults drown in it? What happens to reality  between our youngest years and adulthood? Could it be that someone promised us something so beautiful that our universe seems dull, empty, even frightening by comparison? It might still be made by a creator of some kind, but religion has made it look ugly -- religion paints everything not of itself as unholy, and sinful, while it beautifies and dignifies its errors, lies, and bigotry like a pig wearing the finest robes. In its efforts to stop us facing reality, religion has become the reality we cannot face.

Look at what religion has made us to -- to ourselves, and to each other. Religion stole our love and our loyalty and gave it to a book, to a telepathic father who tells his children that love means kneeling before him.

There might yet be a heaven -- but it isn't going to be perfect, and we're going to have to build it ourselves.

12 December 2010

On Being Frank

Back in 2006 I titled this blog 'Let Me Be Frank' in part because I wanted to speak my mind earnestly, but also as a tip of the hat to an inspiration of mine, Frank Sinatra. I started listening to Sinatra in the summer of 2004 after picking up a CD of his ("The Very Good Years"), and he immediately rose to become one of my favorite artists. I liked Sinatra not for politics or philanthropy, but because he embodied traits I wanted to posses. Religious-wise, I was already in a downhill spiral. With every passing week, I felt more depressed, angry, and helpless.  That dissipated when I listened to Frank. When I hear him sing, I heard courage, bravado, exulting joy, and strength. I read numerous biographies and found myself wanting to emulate him. When I listened to Frank Sinatra, I walked a little taller, was a little happier.

Eventually I told religion to get lost and determined that gods or no, I was going to live my life, enjoy it, and do something with it to help other people. I made this declaration and defended it with nothing but will. Certainly part of that came from Sinatra's willfulness rubbing off on me. In the years that have passed, I've become far happier. In seeking peace, though, I've...wandered too deep into the monastery of contemplation. Studying Stoicism has given me much to be thankful for -- mindfulness, for instance -- but I've been too much self-absorbed,  too focused on being 'right' instead of LIVING.  This was brought to a head when I started reading Augustine's Confessions and a biography of Sinatra in the same week and realized whose spirit I'd rather mine be more kin to. When it comes to looking for the balance between Stoic serenity and humanist passion, I will err on the side of exhultive pleasure.  Life's too short to wear a monk's habit.

Anyway, being as this is Frank Sinatra's birthday, here's one of my favorite 'brassy' numbers. Transcribed lyrics are below.

I'm gonna live -- until I die!
I'm gonna laugh, instead of cry!
I'm gonna take the town and turn it upside town,
I'm gonna live, live, live until I die.

They're gonna say, "What a guy!"
I'm gonna play for the sky
Ain't gonna miss a thing,
I'm gonna have my fling,
I'm gonna live, live, live until I die.

The blues I lay low, I make `em stay low 
They'll never let `em trail over my head.
I'll be a devil 'til I'm an angel, but until then --
HALLELUJAH! Gonna dance! Gonna fly!
I'll take a chance, ridin' high
Before my number's up, I'm gonna fill my cup
I'm gonna live, live, live! until I die.

The blues I lay low, I'll make `em stay low --
They'll never trail over my head.
I'll be a devil 'til I'm an angel, but until then --
HALLELUJAH! Gonna dance, gonna fly
I'll take a chance ridin' high
Before my number's up, I'm gonna fill my cup
I'm gonna live! Live! Live until I die!

05 December 2010

On Being Politically In/Correct

Abraham Lincoln: What a charming Negress! Oh, forgive me, my dear. I know in my time some used that term as a description of property."
Uhura: But why should I object to that term, sir? You see, in our century we've learned not to fear words.
(Star Trek, "The Savage Curtain")

What is political correctness?

In middle school I thought it was the practice of altering one's language or remaining quiet about some beliefs to avoid engendering offense. In seventh grade I remember kids making a game of inventing 'politically correct' descriptions: essentially, we attempted to find the most convoluted way of describing people and things we could. "Short" became "vertically challenged", and "fat", "horizontally enhanced". In a less juvenile context, the motivation to avoid being offensive is why accepted terminologies for minorities change through time: 'cripple' has become 'disabled' or 'handicapped', and "Negro" has eventually developed into African-American, though "colored" and "black" were intermediaries.

While it is understandable that people would resist changing the way they speak to please someone else,  there are also reasons why certain words and phrases have become 'n-words', and why we perhaps ought to rethink our use of them. Language is constantly changing: as time passes, words are separated from their original meanings and intents. "Retarded" may have once been a clinical description indicating that a patient's mental abilities were impaired or inhibited, but people now use it to attack those who they believe are acting foolishly, or simply to demean those whom they disagree with or dislike. They thus corrupt the word: their  base intention has turned a once objective description into a mean and contemptuous term.  Those who prefer their language to be civil are right to to avoid such vulgarity.  Politically correct terms also sometimes make more sense than those which they replace: 'native American' may be lengthsome, but 'Indian' is ignorant.

Political correctness in language has its shortcomings as well: politically correct descriptions tend toward the ungainly (it being much harder to shout "Hey, person with a higher-than-normal body-mass index!" than "Hey, fatty!"), and some phrases simply do not work. "Differently-abled" is an example of this:  it says nothing, for we all have 'different' abilities.  The full use of arms and legs is considered a normal, typical ability of human beings, (thus the appropriateness of 'disabled') but it is not an insult to be abnormal despite the fact that there are those who take pleasure in mocking others for being different.  I understand why people who are sensitive about being different in some way would prefer that people didn't draw attention to their difference, but insisting that others use ungainly phrases will attract more hostility than the proposed phrase deflects.

I believe political correctness exists more as an imagined object of hostility than as a monolithic force in itself. There is no language commission in the United States which ruthlessly seeks out every indecorous word and sends it to a speech-gulag somewhere.  Instead,  people attack particular words linked to particular minorities as the minorities, the people themselves, begin asserting themselves. The titular "n-word" has been sent to a speech-gulag by people who stood up for themselves and forced the majority to consider: why are you using that word to attack us? Why are you keeping us segregated, denied equal rights and opportunities?

The reactionary mentality does not like being forced to consider its actions and beliefs. It does not want to consider that it was in the wrong, that it remains in the wrong by protesting instead of admitting to having acted poorly or having been ignorant. They thus invent the phrase 'politically correct' as an insult to approve their own actions. Suddenly, they are not the oppressors: they are the victims. Behold, the great white majority  are being persecuted because they can no longer call a wop a wop and a chink a chink! Politically correct language doesn't allow them to justify their distrust or contempt of others with a blow-rendering label.

 Imperial Christians are especially bad about this during Christmas. Christmas in the United States is only partly Christian: it carries the Catholic title "Christ's Mass" in its name,  but I daresay most people don't darken the door of a church on Christmas Eve or Christmas day. They certainly don't hear a mass. Many of the practices stem from sources other than Paulinism:  Christmas trees and yule logs are German, caroling and reveling Roman, and shameless consumerism  oh-so-very modern.  The date of the holiday itself comes from the winter solstice, acknowledged by most cultures in the northern hemisphere -- and yet Christians will claim the holiday is all theirs, that every thing about it is the exclusive property of Jesus Christ Incorporated. If anyone dares acknowledge that the Roman church's mass isn't the only religious or festive ceremony held in late December,  this is a source of great umbrage to the Christians, who construe "Happy Holidays" as an insult to their beliefs and every utterance of "Solstice" is an assault on the body of Christ.

I believe this reactionary mentality is why those who take pride in being politically incorrect tend to be aggressively rude and insufferably opinionated:  they like being jackasses, by god, and how dare you judge them for acting like a jackass? Being proud of being politically incorrect is tantamount to seeking a license to be a jackass, and doing it in the name of free speech, yet.  There's irony here, it seems: people rail against their actions being judged as rude or uninformed,  even though their actions themselves were judgment of other people.

For my own part, I don't think the labels themselves are the problem: they are merely a symptom of the tendecy of people to attack and demean others.  Judge the intent of language: once that is known, the expression is mostly garnish.

03 December 2010

Freethought Friday #2: From "A Lay Sermon"

If you want to be happy yourself, if you are truly civilized, you want others to be happy. Every man ought, to the extent of his ability, to increase the happiness of mankind, for the reason that that will increase his own. No one can be really prosperous unless those with whom he lives share the sunshine and the joy.

The first thing a man wants to know and be sure of is when he has got enough. Most people imagine that the rich are in heaven, but, as a rule, it is only a gilded hell. There is not a man in the city of New York with genius enough, with brains enough, to own five millions of dollars. Why? The money will own him. He becomes the key to a safe. That money will get him up at daylight; that money will separate him from his friends; that money will fill his heart with fear; that money will rob his days of sunshine and his nights of pleasant dreams. He cannot own it. He becomes the property of that money. And he goes right on making more. What for? He does not know. It becomes a kind of insanity. No one is happier in a palace than in a cabin. I love to see a log house. It is associated in my mind always with pure, unalloyed happiness. It is the only house in the world that looks as though it had no mortgage on it. It looks as if you could spend there long, tranquil autumn days; the air filled with serenity; no trouble, no thoughts about notes, about interest -- nothing of the kind; just breathing free air, watching the hollyhocks, listening to the birds and to the music of the spring that comes like a poem from the earth.

It is an insanity to get more than you want. Imagine a man in this city, an intelligent man, say with two or three millions of coats, eight or ten millions of hats, vast warehouses full of shoes, billions of neckties, and imagine that man getting up at four o'clock in the morning, in the rain and snow and sleet, working like a dog all day to get another necktie! Is not that exactly what the man of twenty or thirty millions, or of five millions, does to-day? Wearing his life out that somebody may say, "How rich he is!" What can he do with the surplus? Nothing. Can he eat it? No. Make friends? No. Purchase flattery and lies? Yes. Make all his poor relations hate him? Yes. And then, what worry! Annoyed, nervous, tormented, until his poor little brain becomes inflamed, and you see in the morning paper, "Died of apoplexy." This man finally began to worry for fear he would not have enough neckties to last him through.

So we ought to teach our children that great wealth is a curse.

21 November 2010

Augustine and Astrology

I asked [Hippocrates] why it was then that the future was often correctly foretold by means of astrology. He gave me the only possible answer, that it was all due to the power of chance, a force that must always be reckoned with in the natural order. He said that people sometimes opened a book of poetry at random, and although the poet had been thinking, as he wrote, of some quite different manner, if often happened that the reader placed his finger on a verse which had a remarkable bearing on his problem. It was not surprising then, that the mind of man, quite unconsciously, through some instinct not within under his own control, should hit upon some thing that answered to his circumstances and the facts of a particular question. If so, it would be due to chance not to skill.

Book four of The Confessions, Augustine of Hippo. Section three. This amusingly follows a section in which Augustine claimed his mother's dreams were a sign to her from God that he would seek salvation in Christianity.  Superstition is always another person's sin, isn't it?

17 November 2010

Ten Centuries in Five Minutes (Updated)

Spotted this at the Buddhist blog.  The map doesn't just portray exchanges of territory, but territory seized by moving armies. Because there's no date given, this video is particularly enjoyable for students of history. I thought I was witnessing the unification of Germany under Bismarck until France invaded Spain, at which point I realized that was Napoleon's 'Confederation of the Rhine' earlier.

Special thanks to Neurovore of N^4 for letting me know the first video was taken down by the money-whoring powers that be.

14 November 2010

What To Do with Officer Friendly

Back in January, a police cruiser and I passed each other going separate directions on a deserted highway winding through a small town. I checked the rear-view mirror as he passed me, ever-wary of being pulled over. An Alabama State Trooper pulled me over once in my first year of driving because I neglected to notice a headlight out, but I'd avoided catching any police officer's attention -- until then. His lights came on, and I automatically switched lanes and pulled into a quiet residential street. I am always wary of being pulled over by the police because I rarely remember to put the state-mandated insurance card in my car. This week I had it in my leather jacket, though, and considered myself fortunate indeed.

Were this just a routine traffic stop, it wouldn't be particularly memorable -- but it ended up in my being frisked. I have never cared much for authority,  but neither have I ever been a troublemaker. Throughout my life people remarked at how well-behaved and nice I was. I followed the rules -- my rules -- for behaving decently, in part to keep authority away from me. When authority targeted me,  I feel anger and indignation.  Little wonder I found Stoicism, with its emphasis on individuals following principled rules for themselves and not depending in outside authorities, or anarchism with its ever-defiant contempt for outside authority, so likable.  Because I do not trust authority, and because I so seldom cross its path, when the officer came to my window I was nervous. I handed him my library card before realizing that wasn't what he wanted, and when I tried to hand him my insurance card he also got the car's title and various other papers.

His reason for pulling me over was that he thought my seatbelt was undone. It was not. I suppose ordinarily he would have bid me good-day, but my nervousness piqued his curiosity. He explained to me that when he spotted nervous behavior from people he detained, he assumed they were nervous for having something to hide. My autonomous nervous system was in full gear, my face sweaty, my hands shaking, and my arms visibly vibrating.  The officer, who I'll refer to as Officer Friendly,  suggested that someone carrying a few kilos of drugs might be nervous.

I chortled at the prospect of my being a drug courier, at which point he asked me if I minded stepping out of the car -- at which point he frisked me. By this time my fear was ebbing away, quickly, replaced by astonishment and amusement that I was being frisked. We talk for a while, and he's still concerned about my being nervous. He wants to know why.  Though I let him frisk me and even search my car, I wasn't so foolish enough to explain to Officer Friendly that I was wary of abusive policemen and of authority in general. Instead, I told him that I hadn't been pulled over in many years and was not expecting it.  He wanted to know why I didn't bump into police officers much, and as valiantly as I tried to tell him that I was a simple fellow who didn't clash with anyone, I think he got the feeling that I was some survivalist character who only came down from my mountain to fetch supplies. I suppose my leather jacket, scruffy face, and car interior didn't help: on this day, it contained my laundry bag, an overstuffed bookpack, perhaps a dozen books, and odds and ends resulting from a week of commuting.  He searched the car, repeatedly inquiring if I was sure I wasn't hiding anything -- if I was sure there were no drugs or concealed weapons in the car. "I'm a man of peace," I felt like saying as I stood in front of his cruiser's camera and resisted the urge to wave at it.

Officer Friendly and I chatted as he searched my car -- with my permission. I'd given it unthinkingly, not realizing he had to ask, and that I had the right to resist him. But he was such a friendly fellow, so likable, that I readily agreed to everything he asked and came away from the situation very amused.  I have no use for drugs, and my only use for a gun would be euthanasia in the event of terminal cancer or such,  so I had no objections to him searching. I had a copy of Red Emma Speaks  in my backpack, but I could just say that was for research purposes on the off-chance he recognized the book as being a collection of anarchist Emma Goldman's writings.  In retrospect, though I should have been more cautious, I still think he was justified by my behavior at the start. That has not stopped me from trying to correct my ignorance, which I did in part tonight when I watched this documentary from the American Civil Liberties Union, called "BUSTED: The Citizen's Guide to Surviving Police Encounters".

The movie consists of three skits in which police officers confront people on the road, on the sidewalks, and in their homes. Each skit has two parts: in the first, the confronted citizens respond as I did and wind up in jail when the police officers seize all the opportunities naivete has given them. In the second, as the ACLU spokesperson narrates, the people 'flex their rights'.  The acting only seemed wooden in the third skit, the video itself should prove helpful to Americans who do not know how to respond in police situations.

11 November 2010

Armistice Day


"I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind. Armistice Day has become Veterans' Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans' Day is not. So I will throw Veterans' Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don't want to throw away any sacred things."

(Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions)

Well, how do you do, Private William McBride, 
Do you mind if I sit down here by your graveside? 
And rest for awhile in the warm summer sun, 
I've been walking all day, and I'm nearly done. 
And I see by your gravestone you were only 19 
When you joined the glorious fallen in 1916, 
Well, I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean 
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene? 

Did they Beat the drum slowly, did the play the pipes lowly? 
Did the rifles fir o'er you as they lowered you down? 
Did the bugles sound The Last Post in chorus? 
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest? 

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind 
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined? 
And, though you died back in 1916, 
To that loyal heart are you forever 19? 
Or are you a stranger without even a name, 
Forever enshrined behind some glass pane, 
In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained, 
And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame? 

The sun's shining down on these green fields of France; 
The warm wind blows gently, and the red poppies dance. 
The trenches have vanished long under the plow; 
No gas and no barbed wire, no guns firing now. 
But here in this graveyard that's still No Man's Land 
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand 
To man's blind indifference to his fellow man. 
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned. 

And I can't help but wonder, now Willie McBride, 
Do all those who lie here know why they died? 
Did you really believe them when they told you "The Cause?" 
Did you really believe that this war would end wars? 
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame 
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain, 
For Willie McBride, it all happened again, 
And again, and again, and again, and again.

© 1976 Eric Bogle

06 November 2010

Message of Hope

(Though I transcribed this for those who can't watch larger videos, it is worth experiencing if you can. Sagan's voice is set against a very complementary piano piece and beautiful imagery.)

We were hunters and foragers; the frontier was everywhere. We were bounded only by the earth, and the ocean, and the sky. The open road still softly calls; our little terraqueous globe is the madhouse of those hundred thousand, millions of worlds. We, who cannot even put our own planetary home in order -- riven with rivalries and hatreds -- are we to venture out into space?

By the time we're ready to settle even the nearest other planetary system, we will have changed. The simple passage of so many generations will have changed us. Necessity will have changed us. We're...an adaptable species. It will not be we who reach Alpha Centauri and the other nearby stars --it will be a species very like us, but with more of our strengths and fewer of our weaknesses: more confident, far-seeing, capable, and prudent.

For all our failings, despite our limitations and fallibilities, we humans are capable of greatness. What new wonders, undreamt of in our time, will we have wrought in another generation? And another? How far will our nomadic species have wandered by the end of the next century, and the next millennium?  Our remote descendants, safely arrayed on many worlds through the solar system and beyond, will be unified -- by their common heritage, by their regard for their home planet, and by the knowledge that whatever life may be, the only humans in all the universe come from Earth.

They will gaze up and strain to find the blue dot in their skies. They will marvel at how vulnerable the  repository of all our potential once was -- how perilous our infancy, how humble our beginnings...how many rivers we had to cross  before we found our way.

(Carl Sagan, reading from The Pale Blue Dot)

01 November 2010

The Life of Ingersoll

Last spring I wrote a biographical essay on Robert Ingersoll for a Gilded Age class. Though initially a five to seven page paper, near the end of the semester we were instructed to distill our work down to 700 words. A year before writing this short biographical article, I wrote an essay in tribute to him, but 'The Life of Ingersoll' is intentionally more neutral. It focuses on him as a man in his times, working as a lawyer and political booster.


Lawyer, politician, and orator Robert Green Ingersoll (1833 - 1899) lived in an America still growing into its own identity. No longer a fledgling Republic, the United States of the Gilded Age could boast of a century of history and tumultuous social change. Ingersoll's gifts as an orator and a disciplined approach to his work enabled him to play a prominent role in the political and social world of his day, rubbing shoulders with presidents, industrialists, poets, and scholars. He died with his name a household word despite his humble beginnings as the son of an itinerant preacher.

Ingersoll’s career began in Peoria, Illinois, where he and his brother, Clark, established a law firm in 1858. Ingersoll’s oratorical strengths developed in part from his practice, building on his father’s legacy as a fiery abolitionist preacher.  He initially practiced criminal and civil law in and around Peoria, although later legal successes allowed him to settle in the lucrative field of corporate law. The Munn (1876) and Star Route (1882-1883) trials in particular established his national reputation as a powerful attorney.  In both politically charged affairs, Ingersoll defended individuals accused of defrauding the government against popular bias. 

Ingersoll’s triumph in these cases owed much to his rhetorical talents, to his exhaustive research, and to a gift for near-perfect recall that allowed him to put that research to use. Although not above the use of surgically-used emotional appeals, Ingersoll preferred to rely on an effective display of facts and unassailable logic. Demand for his talents never waned in either law or politics. Ingersoll’s abolitionist sentiments and repugnance for secession made a loyal Republican of the former Democrat, and he campaigned tirelessly for his party during the Reconstruction years. Only his hatred for the Democrats, the party of "rebellion and murder", rivaled his love for the Republican Party, which he believed represented the best of the American spirit. Ingersoll regarded Reconstruction as vital in preventing the triumphs of the Civil War from becoming moot. If the Republican party did not stay the course, he feared that “the Confederate army with ballots instead of bayonets, with Gen’l Andy Johnson at the head, will conquer at last.”

The Republican Party’s post-war history did not prove to Ingersoll’s liking. The period’s corruption and graft disappointed a man who believed so fervently in the need for, and the possibility of, honest government. He nearly retired from politics during the Hayes administration, disturbed by the President’s increasingly conciliatory attitude toward southern Democrats. Even so, he seized any opportunity to champion politicians with integrity: his “Plumed Knight” speech endorsing James Blaine swept the newspapers and kept his services in demand by Republicans seeking office. Ingersoll never held elected office, enjoying only an appointment as the Illinois Attorney General.  His political focus tended to be broader than that of the organized parties: in championing American ideals, he sought to expand them further and took up the banners of women’s suffrage, Civil Rights, and labor. While progressive in social matters,  he viewed himself as a conservative promoting and defending America’s promise of human equality. 

His eagerness to embrace these causes owed much to Ingersoll's humanist sympathies. He advocated American expansion to advance the cause of human progress, for he saw the Enlightenment principles embedded in the US Constitution as humanity's best hope for a better future. The works of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and others whom he read as a child engendered his faith in democracy as well as his freethinking belief in personal responsibility in matters of morality and seeking the truth.  Ingersoll promoted his worldview and religious devotion for liberty and progress in public lectures, capitalizing on his broad education to speak on philosophy, history, science, politics, and religion. His passion and approach earned him praise from progressives, but scathing criticism from orthodox clergymen who objected to his attacks upon organized religion. Attracting large audiences (as many as 50,000 in a given night), "Impious Pope Bob" rose to national prominence while advancing the cause of freethought in its golden age. 

Ingersoll’s life of political and cultural contributions are inseparable from the context of the Gilded Age. Caught between the Enlightenment and modernity, Ingersoll attempted to draw upon those older ideals to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world, drawing attention to the abuses of the day while advocating human progress.

Additional Resources:
  • Anderson, David. Robert Ingersoll. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.
  • Larson, Orvin. American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll. New York: Citadel Press, 1962. 
  • Greely, Rogert E. The Best of Robert Ingersoll. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1977. 

30 October 2010

Inner Reign

My introduction to meditation came through a Unitarian Universalist lecture in which the speaker asked his audience to close their eyes and count to thirty, slowly -- focusing on nothing but the counting. The author's and my own experience confirmed that in trying this, the counter will be distracted by passing thoughts -- thoughts that pop up from nowhere. The lesson he took from this is that we are not always in control of our own minds -- but, he added, perhaps we should be.

The idea of holding the reins, of establishing dominion over my own mind, appealed to me. Already a freethinker, I began studying Stoicism and Buddhist meditation in the pursuit of mindfulness. Henry David Thoreau introduced Walden by stating that he wished to live "deliberately". I like that choice of words, for to act deliberately implies a level of control, of focus. Maintaining such deliberation is difficult, for while we possess the capacity to order our lives, we seem to be primarily emotional, instinctive creatures.

A common strength  I derive from freethought, Stoicism, and anarchism is power: power over myself, conviction that I believe and act as I do because I have ruled deliberately over my mind and established rules based on reason and empathy.  Marcus Aurelius advised himself to be like a citadel, which the waves crashed against but did not break, and I see my mind as a sanctuary and a castle, guarded by stern guards who do not permit unconsidered thoughts and malice to enter. In meditating, I see myself pacing the halls of such a fortress, throwing out flaming torches or dismissing aggressive courtiers. My aim is sovereignty: self-possession.

One of the difficulties in maintaining sovereignty is recognizing the emotional games we play with ourselves. I take note of them when I spot them at play in my own life, and this post is an introduction of sorts to a series of musings and articles on 'inner reign', on spotting  games like self-righteousness, tribal mentalities, and the like. At the same time, I will endeavor to steer clear of the abyss of puritanism. The goal is to be free and at peace, not possessed by the unattainable. 


25 October 2010

Reduced Shakspeare Company

After witnessing William Shatner rap Marc Anthony's funeral speech for Julius Caesar, I thought I'd seen everything. A related video led me to the Reduced Shakespeare Company's "Othello Rap", and then to this comic abridged performance of The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliette, which makes one of English literature's great tragedies a laugh act. Part of this stems from their delivery of the lines -- flavoring Shakespeare's elegant tongue with some modern English, and reacting to odd turns of phrase -- but much of the humor is physical. The entire play is presented by two people (not including a narrator), and they duck behind the background scenery to quickly change parts. They gesticulate wildly and dance about, and break the fourth wall with gusto.

I laughed throughout, and am now engrossed in their version of Hamlet.

10 October 2010

Cold Reading: a Personal Encounter

I first encountered cold-reading as a young teenager, during a series of 'revival' services starring an evangelist named Steve Grimsley.  Grimsley was tall, thin, and appropriately grim: he wore dark suits and maintained a dour look upon his face at all times. He was a gifted performer, possessing a richly compelling voice and using elegant movements (particularly his hands) to maintain attention upon himself -- ensuring that our eyes were on his jet-black hair, wrinkled face, and riveting stare.

At the time I did not know he was a cold-reader. I regarded him as a genuine Man of God, a prophet. My religion rarely felt real to me, and I count that first revival with him as one of THE times that it did. He seemed to know things that no one could know -- without having done research. A professional, he started every service by ensuring that everyone in the congregation "knew" he hadn't done any research. He would ask if he or his wife had ever spoken with his volunteers  before,  and would ask the pastor if they had ever discussed the volunteers' affairs.  The pastor would solemnly shake his head no.

Then, touching the volunteer's forehead with the index and middle fingers of one hand and raising the others to the heavens, he would pray for a few seconds before beginning his "act".  He addressed the volunteer by name, then told them things about their life. He would say he saw people or things around them, and eventually started telling them what they should do to stay on-course.

The first and most vivid example of his abilities came when he told a woman he saw a fence around her home, and she nodded yes. He then guessed that it was high, and she nodded again.  Pentecostal services are highly emotional, and so it is not surprising to me in retrospect that a congregation of people wound up and willing to believe saw in these pedestrian predictions a miracle.  The woman did indeed have a fence "around" her home: she lived at the base of a short hill, at the top of which was a tennis court with a high fence. The fence cast shadows on her lawn.

To us, the believers, he seemed to be describing her house, and we imagined he saw it in all its detail. He offered abstractions, and we filled in the blanks. To the skeptic,  his brassiness is incredible. He expected people to be impressed by the fact that he figured there was a fence near her home? Fences are commonplace. There is a fence across the street from where I lived at the time, and a fence across the street from where I live now, and when I babysat during the summer and stayed at someone's house, by golly there was a fence near there, too.

The art of cold reading is to start off making broad statements, then narrow them down based on the person's responses, or manipulating their responses to give the reader new leads. Two of his other "readings" involved a prophecy that the pastor's daughter would play the piano,  and that another girl was rebellious against her father.

The pastor's wife --  the first girls' mother -- was the church pianist, and the girl herself was interested in music. She sometimes practiced at church. It was not a hazardous guess for him that she would one day play the piano. (Ten years later: she does not play the piano, nor does she play any of the other musical instruments she was interested in at the time.) As for the other girl -- well! It's certainly risky to guess that a teenager is feeling rebellious, isn't it?

At the time, I was as willing to believe as the rest. There were others who kept themselves outside the church on purpose (one older teenager would frighten adults and scare younger kids by telling them he didn't want be to saved)  who scoffed. "Break out the tarot cards," one said to me, "Here comes the Magician!".   Later, when I left religion for freethought and humanism, I looked back at Steve Grimsley and laughed. Having compared him to other 'mentalists', I realized that he was painfully transparent, but with Pentecostal congregations he had a captive audience ready to be amazed by trivialities.

Incidentally, I was never 'read'. He terrified me, and I stayed away from him.  I shook visibly in my seat, causing the chairs I gripped to vibrate, but when he approached me he only attempted to 'pray me through to the Holy Ghost'.  I have mentioned that encounter previously.

If you are interested in  learning how to recognize a cold-reading, here are some resources.

27 September 2010

Burn the Necropolis

The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus.

We live in a world ruled by rotting bones: cemetaries seat empires. The dead hold power that defies measure over the living. The dead reign largely because people are ignorant that corpses hold them in bondage. Few people would consciously bow before tombstones, and yet people carry on the bidding of decaying masters with every unconsidered thought, with every expression of an idea, belief, or value that they did not forge by hand themselves.

The dead rule the living because their ideas rule us. We become the property of despots as children, when we are most vulnerable, when reason's stern blade has not yet forged and tempered. Parents, society, and authority figures bind us, although they are slaves themselves. Sometimes they are conscious of the role they play as agents of tyranny, a role that allows religious sects and political ideologies to thrive. They perform the great trick of turning fetters into jeweled bracelets that we snap on happily and cling to.  In enlightened times such as these, when people tacitly endorse freedom of speech and thought, they might feel somewhat guilty for imposing ideas on the innocent -- but then they feel it is righteous on their part. Every culture maintains itself: that's the way "it should be". Their political and religious ideas are right, after all: what's the harm in making children think right? In this way, all the horrible sects of the world maintain themselves, and children are taught to hate and are deprived of their potential. They are robbed the glory that lies in being free and living life with courage. Instead, the spear of Tradition beats their knees, forcing them to the ground where they bow before corpses.

Before Muhammed, people worshiped a box in Mecca that contained the relics associated with  various Arabian gods. After Muhammad, they worshiped a box that contains a stone supposedly given to Abraham. Worship of the dead is still worship of the dead.

Our ideas are, in large part, not our own. We inherit them: to which decaying mounds of flesh we pay homage  depends on where and when we were born. A family born in Rome four hundred years before the reign of Augustus would have kept an icon of a favored deity in their home, possibily of Apollo. Apollo's priests would rule there. Eight hundred years later, that same family would worship the doctrine of Paul. Paul's priests, his agents, would be that family's masters. Our parents give birth to us in the same gloomy prison cell in which they sit: they instill beliefs in us that their parents instilled in them. We call this cycle, this endless transmission of ideas, 'culture' -- and the promotion of one corpse over another 'progress'.  Shall we allow an accident of birth to determine  our beliefs and character?

I despise the rule of the dead, the tyranny of ideas over life. I reject their reign first on principle, for no human has any right to rule another in body, let alone in mind. Secondly, there is no reason we ought to be bound by tradition. Why should our ancestors rule us? What justifies the tyranny of parents, even? Maturity, intelligence, and a sense of responsibility are not required for procreation: the lack of these traits seems more conducive to arranging a pregnancy.  Parents force themselves on their children, molding them into their own image,  by the virtue of brute power -- nothing more. No one would contest their sacred right to produce copies of themselves, and so we are blessed with the heritage of racism  and dogmatic religion generation after generation.  It strikes me that the ability to mold a mind is a terrible responsibility, not a right -- one to be taken with humility and cautiousness, not pride. To the detriment of humanity, the only responsibility most parents seem to keep in mind is the' responsibility' to pass on the limited beliefs of their own parents.

Are the dead so much wiser than us? Hardly. They were human, just as we are, and prone to the same mistakes and indignities, and yet being dead seems to accord them great respect. The further removed they are from the world of the living, in fact, the more honor we give them. They can tell us they flew to Heaven on a horse and saw the dead walk again, and we believe them. If the living told us these things, we'd gently escort them to the mental ward. I suspect we give the dead such honor because we feel we cannot take ourselves seriously, and so we cling to the ideas of people who are removed from us. We seek objectivity. But whatever noble personages we honor shared the same insecurity: Jesus looked to Moses, Plato to Socrates. They too, sought objectivity, for they were limited by their times just as most people are today. Moses thought nothing of murder, Jesus nothing of racism, Paul nothing of slavery. The United States' founding fathers beat their chests and spoke nobly of democracy while maintaining slaves and denying all but the landed gentry the vote. Few individuals are spiritual anarchists, who based their lives on their own hand-made ideas, beliefs, and principles. Those who do stand out, because they have found a more elevated foundation:  ideas and morals based on free reason. If we are to seek objectivity, I believe reason is our best hope.

I understand part of the reason people cling to the fetters of their ancestors is the knowledge that one day they will become ancestors themselves. Every person who spends their first night in a crib will eventually spend their last night in a casket. In modern times we humans can live close to a hundred years: our ancestors would have thought fifty a boon. Even so, we know we are but leaves blown in the wind, simply passing through life. Cognizant that our time on Earth is short, we long to be linked to a tree.We seek meaning by attaching ourselves to something bigger: a religion, a state, a worldview.  Perhaps this is unavoidable,  but there is no cause for slavish attachment. If we wish to ground ourselves by referencing a tradition, why not do so with a level of sobriety, of knowing what we are doing and doing it with respect for ourselves. Even the mightiest oak will fall in time: I suggest it is better to make the most of the time we have than to hide ourselves in longer-lived traditions.

When it comes to "honoring" tradition, I think we take stock of ourselves and ask: are we maintaining tradition deliberately to serve us? Or...are we protecting it because we depend on it, unaccustomed to living, thinking, and believing on our own?  If we are trying to protect ideas to protect ourselves,  we are not free. We cannot be free to live, to grow, to flourish if we're constantly hobbling on a crutch.

Too magnificent a jewel to waste on the hands of the dead.

For my own part, I believe Earth and life belong to us, the living. The dead have had their day. Let it rest with them. Ours is still upon us, and we ought to seize it -- to live as our needs and desires demand, not the putrefying flesh of yesteryear.

Foundations may crumble,
And structures will tumble,
And free men will cry,
"Die Gedanken sind Frei!"
But free men will cry,
"Die Gedanken sind Frei!"

("Die Gedanken Sind Frei", English lyrics by Pete Seeger)

21 September 2010

Geek Quickie

Recently I spotted this quotation at a message board and thought it worth sharing. For context,  readers in Trek literature have spent the better part of twenty pages arguing discussing with great enthusiasm the meaning of the Destiny series. 

Humanism doesn't mean humans are perfect. It means we're flawed but are capable of striving to improve. And it means that just because we have setbacks and failures, it doesn't negate the fact that we're capable of bettering ourselves. It means that even if individual humans fail, other humans can redeem them. Here, we had one human, Picard, pushed to the point of failure, but another human, Geordi, brought him back from the brink and kept him on the path toward betterment, and other humans including Riker and Hernandez helped bring about a triumph for humanity and its fellow sophonts over the ultimate anti-humanistic force.
So I'm with Thrawn. Destiny is very much a humanistic work.

The poster is Christopher L. Bennett, a Trek author. If you're interested in Trek books, he's one of the better authors I've read. He incorporates more science than the usual Trek author.

18 August 2010

Will Durant on History

I recently read Heroes of History by Will Durant as a way of introducing myself to the author, and it satisfied to the point that I'll be reading more of his work; particularly, his Story of Civilization series. Judging from this book, Durant truly adores his subject and looks at humanity in an optimistic light: believing we can prevail over difficulties if we continue to work. The following passage ends his introductory chapter, "What is Civilization?"

"I will not subscribe to the depressing conclusion of Voltaire and Gibbon that history is 'the record of crimes and follies of mankind'. Of course, it is partly that, and contains a hundred million tragedies -- but it also the saving sanity of the average family, the labor and love of men and women bearing the stream of life over a thousand obstacles. It is the wisdom and courage of statesmen like Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, the latter dying exhausted but fulfilled; it is the indiscouragable effort of scientists and philosophers to understand the world that envelops them; it is the patience and skill of artists and poets giving lasting form to transient beauty, or an illuminating clarity to subtle influence; it is the vision of prophets and saints challenging us to nobility.
 On this turbulent and sullied river, hidden amid absurdity and suffering, there is a veritable City of God, in which the creative spirits of the past, by the miracles of memory and tradition, still live and work, carve and build and sing. Plato is there, playing philosophy with Socrates; Shakespeare is there, bringing new treasures every day; Keats is still listening to his nightingale, and Shelley is borne on the west wind; Nietzsche is there, raving and revealing; Christ is there, calling to us to come and share his bread. These and a thousand more, and the gifts they gave, are the Incredible Legacy of the race, the golden strain in the web of history.
 We need not close our eyes to the evils that challenge us -- we should work undiscouragingly to lessen them -- but we may take strength from the achievements of the past; the splendor of our inheritance. Let us, varying Shakespeare's unhappy king, sit down and tell brave stories of noble women and great men." 

11 July 2010

My Mind to me a Kingdom Is

My Mind to me a Kingdom Is
Sir Edward Dyer (d. 1607)

MY mind to me a kingdom is;
  Such present joys therein I find,
That it excels all other bliss
  That earth affords or grows by kind:
Though much I want that most would have,        5
Yet still my mind forbids to crave.
No princely pomp, no wealthy store,
  No force to win the victory,
No wily wit to salve a sore,
  No shape to feed a loving eye;        10
To none of these I yield as thrall;
For why? my mind doth serve for all.
I see how plenty surfeits oft,
  And hasty climbers soon do fall;
I see that those which are aloft        15
  Mishap doth threaten most of all:
They get with toil, they keep with fear:
Such cares my mind could never bear.
Content I live, this is my stay;
  I seek no more than may suffice;        20
I press to bear no haughty sway;
  Look, what I lack my mind supplies.
Lo, thus I triumph like a king,
Content with that my mind doth bring.
Some have too much, yet still do crave;        25
  I little have, and seek no more.
They are but poor, though much they have,
  And I am rich with little store;
They poor, I rich; they beg, I give;
They lack, I leave; they pine, I live.        30
I laugh not at another’s loss,
  I grudge not at another’s gain;
No worldly waves my mind can toss;
  My state at one doth still remain:
I fear no foe, I fawn no friend;        35
I loathe not life, nor dread my end.
Some weigh their pleasure by their lust,
  Their wisdom by their rage of will;
Their treasure is their only trust,
  A cloakèd craft their store of skill;        40
But all the pleasure that I find
Is to maintain a quiet mind.
My wealth is health and perfect ease,
  My conscience clear my chief defence;
I neither seek by bribes to please,        45
  Nor by deceit to breed offence:
Thus do I live; thus will I die;
Would all did so as well as I!

24 June 2010

Humanism and Politics

I'm often tempted to describe my political views as humanist. This is because for me humanism is all-encompassing. I don't restrict myself to the modern definition, which tends to be defined by what it isn't, but rather embrace the whole of humanity's spirit: literature, politics, philosophy, and everything else in the library. Although there are humanist parties in place (associated with the "Humanist International"), I don't know too much about them and according to Wikipedia -- whose veracity is unquestionable, you know -- other humanist groups view them with a great deal of suspicion. This is not a matter I have looked into for myself because it is a moot subject: there is no Humanist Party in the United States that I know of. If there was, though, what would be be constituted of?

I sometimes identify my politics with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to make it clear I am human-rights centered. I am a humanist: my concerns start with humanity first, not in endorsing political ideologies. It seems to me that many political groups care only for abstracts -- The Nation, for instance, or The Economy. These things only matter to the point that they help us. I care little for free markets or planned economies by themselves: I want to know what state people can be their best in. I have a few opinions on that subject, but I don't know if this is the place for them. I think human rights is a good starting point for political humanism. I think human rights must be universal, with no distinctions made to seperate those who do not share political viewpoints. To deny human rights to prisoners, even terrorists, is to deny our own humanity. I don't think we can keep someone's face in the dirt without getting down there themselves, in other words. We can't call ourselves humanists and forgoe human rights.

Branching off from a commitment to human rights is the necessity for democracy: among the rights we cherish is the right of every person to think, believe, and act for himself -- to be in control of his or her own destiny. 

Although human rights is a starting point, crucial to modern humanism is the spirit of rationality. Reason must inform our politics -- not vain trust in ideology. It is one thing to explore the consequences of free-market options versus planned options, for instance: it is another to believe that The Free Market is god and that only in it can people be happy. The same goes for planned economies: although they sound splendid on paper, societies are difficult things to plan. I mention these not because of the current political debate, but because this is something I think about a lot: I have a zealous distrust of corporate power and a healthy respect for the corrupting influence that power has on the people who think they hold it, but I also can't underestimate the tendecy for bureacracies to get bogged down or for the system to simply not work because we will never have access to all the information that we need to plan things properly.

I don't need to praise Reason to humanists, but I so very rarely hear it praised in political matters. Instead, we hear a lot about belief and values. I don't condemn these things, but we must temper them with reason. We cannot blindly trust in something because it makes us feel good, or because if everyone trusted in it everyone would be happy. Unthinking praise for beliefs and values is the road to nationalism, for beliefs and values are always personal. Reason is impersonal: we humans may think differently about many things, but we know something is reasonable when we hear it. Our brains understand the language of logic, even if they make mistakes in the translation. Reason cannot be a passive thing: we must interrogate ideas, make them prove their worth. 

You might wonder why I have not yet mentioned church-state seperation, as it seems to be the easiest thing for humanists to rally around. I think this misses the point: we plant the flag and bare our teeth when a religious group attempts to enforce its own values on the rest of us, but try to do the same about corporations influecing the government through campaign contributions and you'll be called a socialist. There is no difference between an oil company and a religious "company" influencing politics or culture: a minority is attempting to rule the majority, or more plainly one group is attempting to dominate or unduly influence another.

Although these are a couple of starting points, there's much room for individual interpretations. Because of my commitment to human rights, for instance, I am a firm believer in universal healthcare. For me, healthcare is too important to not be available to all who need it: it is a moral imperative. I do not want it to be subject to the whims of profit and greed: the starting point for planning the policy must be to meet needs, not to generate profit. Democracy is also not a simple issue: while some believe in representation, others value more direct forms of democracy.

What are your thoughts on how humanism can be expressed politically? 

07 June 2010


"I can't hate you. I'd rather die than hate you." - Dr. Martin Luther King, as quoted in Here If You Need Me.

I remember sitting in the backseat of our family car as a small child, waiting in the parking lot of a supermarket with my sister and her best friend while my mother shopped for groceries inside. When an elderly black man left the story and began walking into the parking lot, one of the two girls -- both of whom were seven years older than me -- used a word in reference to him. I asked what it meant, and they replied that it was just used in reference to black people. With childish excitement at knowing a new word (and innocence at its meaning), I stuck my head outside the open window and yelled "Hey, ni-"

That was as far as I got before being muffled and hauled in by my now embarrassed sisters. At that point I learned that the word was taboo, not to be uttered in public -- especially not in the presence of black people. In the United States, and particularly in the American south where slavery held sway for centuries and segregation lingered for decades thereafter, the word is odious. No other word in the American language, not even that versatile word that George Carlin so championed, is as offensive in the south.  Despite this, it sees heavy usage among both blacks and whites, used in different contexts.  The word may no longer be fit for public utterance, but the meaning -- the emotions -- behind it still lurk in the minds of people.

As I've grown older I've learned to ignore words themselves and focus on their meanings, hence why "cuss" words no longer make me flinch  as they did in my Pentecostal youth, and why I regard the excitement about them as being...silly, almost juvenile. I am more concerned with the malicious meanings behind socially acceptable words than I am the "offensiveness" of words deemed profane. The "n-word" is not the only word in history that has been used to belittle and marginalize people: there are a host of such words, and we use them every day when we use labels to write someone off.

A couple of years ago, I endured a falling-out with a friend over this issue. He made heavy use of  such words, as he enjoyed being the center of attention in a given conversation and typically held such attention by attacking other people in jokes. His preferred targets were "libs" and "Dems", although in truth anyone who disagreed with him or who bothered him in any little way would attract his attention.  I found this behavior boorish and increasingly unpleasant, and so parted ways with him. His behavior bothered me not simply because of the stock I put in simple decency, but because I knew I shared his behavior in some ways. I would never use labels to assault someone in public, of course, but I used them in private when writing or thinking. Just as he had his 'libs and dems', I had choice targets like "fundies".

Shortly after our falling out, I swore off using labels to demean people. I do not want to keep company with the hostility, contempt, anger, and loathing that those words gave voice to, and denying them a voice was the first step. Instead of voicing these emotions, I decided to examine them -- to turn them over and upside down, and sort out why I felt that way toward one person or another. (I became more interested in Stoicism after my departure from this friend, as it turned into a bitter row with emotional fallout that lingered for months.)  I decided that attacking people with labels did no good: it only dehumanized them in my eyes, and that took me down a road I was not willing to travel. As a humanist, I wish to remain charitable toward all, even those who wish me ill will.  It is my way of defending myself, of not wounding what I am capable of. I stand for Humanity: not just my fellow Homo sapiens but for what we are capable of -- for what we may achieve not just in knowledge and in prosperity, but in how we act.  I want a better society than this, and I do not think that can be achieved if we continually attack one another as people.

A year or so ago I realized something else: labels are foolish, not just because they dehumanize others but because they are so frequently unreliable. People are not nearly as consistent as we would like to believe in stereotypical behavior: the man we denounce as a bastard one day may render a kindness the next. Instead of writing someone off, I choose to evaluate their actions. I do myself the same kindness. I can never know enough about a person's personality and character to judge them, but I can think about their actions and judge them for worth or harm. By focusing on what they do, I can avoid demeaning them for who they are and possibly even provoke a change in them by remarking on the destructive tendency of their actions in a more objective manner -- something not possible if I were to attack them. Concentrating on verbs is more useful than employing "n-words" -- nouns in this manner.

In the past year, I have grown in my ability to put aside labels and deal with people as people, and I am happy to report that my desire to understand others quickly overcomes hostility toward behavior I find objectionable (believing in dogma, for instance). Progress along these lines is thus possible, if we are willing to strive toward it.

15 May 2010

Skeptic's Anthem: Die Gedanken Sind Frei

Die Gedanken sind frei
(Thoughts are Free)

Die Gedanken sind frei,
My thoughts freely flower.
Die Gedanken sind frei,
My thoughts give me power.
No scholar can map them;
No hunter can trap them.
No man can deny,
die Gedanken sind frei!
No man can deny,
die Gedanken sind frei.

I think as I please;
and this gives me pleasure.
My conscience decrees;
This right I must treasure.
My thoughts will not cater
To priest or dictator
No man can deny,
die Gedanken sind frei.
No man can deny,
die Gedanken sind frei.

And should tyrants take me
And throw me in prison
My thoughts will burst free
Like blossoms in season
Foundations may crumble,
And structures will tumble,
And free men will cry,
"Die Gedanken sind Frei!"
And free men will cry,
"Die Gedanken sind Frei!"

This song is adapted from a German folk song, and I further modified the English version by replacing "duke" with "priest", addressing both religious and political tyrants instead of political tyrants twice over.