29 March 2010

The Fax from Heaven

Recently I received a fax, mistakenly I think. As I don't know who the intended recipient is, I am trying to share the message on behalf of the sender, who I cannot seem to locate. Hopefully the intended audience will read it somehow. 

To the Good People of the Earth, as well as to the Rotten Ones: 
It has been brought to My attention that you are concerned about My absence from your schools, culture, and so forth. You believe that if I am not allowed in government institutions,  matters will deteriorate there. You therefore propose amendments and the like to allow me access. You also shout angry things at the people you think are responsible. 
Well, first let me say -- I'm touched. It's nice knowing you guys want Me around. But, really -- it's unnecessary. I'm omnipresent. That means I'm everywhere.I'm in the sacred places -- the nursery of a newborn -- and the foul places, corporate board meetings. I can't not be some place: it's impossible. Government legislation doesn't change metaphysical fact. I can't leave a place, and I can't go anywhere: I'm everywhere, all places, and at once.

Secondly, you seem to think misfortune befalls you because I'm not around. This is wrong.  I'm everywhere, as I've already established. Since unpleasant things are constantly happening, it should be obvious that I allow them to happen. (I'd rather you not ask why.)  I created everything -- good and evil, darkness and light. You may think that the occasional misfortune in your own lives -- a school shooting, a bridge collapse, a hurricane -- is remarkable, worthy of lamenting. This is only because you have created a society that is generally safe and predictable. Good work, by the way. In your safety, you forget that misery is a constant. People all around the world are in terrible conditions, but this isn't because I'm not there.  Havoc visits both the just and the unjust: misery and goodness may both prevail in a given area whether it be ruled by those who claim to reject or embrace Me.  Life is hard. If you don't like that, change it -- but don't pretend your lives are difficult because I'm not around. I'm not a nursemaid: I'm the Almighty. It's not that I don't care, but Me being around doesn't mean life is roses and blue skies.

Thirdly, as horrible as this may sound to you, I don't actually want to be a part of your government. Do you realize the kind of people I'd have to work with?  Goodness Me! Your politicians worship money and power, not Me. Some things never change. I haven't sponsored a political campaign in years, let Me tell you. I figured out that they were just using My name for publicity. Turns out politicans serve the interests of those who fund them, not in whose name they champion. That goes for you, as well.

These politicans are a disingenuous sort: come every election day, they claim with toothy grins to stand for "conservative, Christian values" while mocking or encouraging contempt for their opponents.  They never elaborate what their values are or why they might be pertinent, nor do their actions prove their lives to be governed by any value other that of crass self-interest. They simply expect you to be swayed by the promise that they will turn out to be a decent sort.  They won't. What kind of man has to broadcast his morality? If he stands for something, it should be obvious. Show Me a politican who manages to get elected without villifying his oponent, and I'll show you someone who might posess character.

As for me, I have decided to leave politics well enough alone. I once tried My hand at governance, and -- well, things did not go as I'd hoped. A few heavenly memos to the wrong people, and suddenly people are being slaughtered, raped, or burned as heretics. Worse still, people claiming to be sent by My office started fudging things up more. I turned away for a moment and half the Earth was at war. As I mentioned previously, people started using me for publicity, so I'm going to stay out of this politics mess.

So: don't worry about not living in a state that's not explicitly about me. The ones that are never work out, because they confuse piety with power. Values -- goodness, honesty and so on -- will still manifest themselves in the lives of those who care about the quality of life.  Substance is worth more than labels: an avowedly secular state can be more moral than the most explicitly religious state.

Like I said, I'm always around.  I can promise you in the future that your society will have ups and downs, but religiosity doesn't matter a bit. It's up to you to make the best of what you have, even if it seems futile at times.  If it all seems a bit too much for you, never fear. You've invented those television and Facebook things to keep your attention off these oh-so-depressing matters. If you choose not to fight, though, to strive forward in spite of difficulties, I forbid you from whining about the results.

(Not that you'd pay attention. Don't wear mixed fabrics, I said. Sell your possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, I said. Don't eat lobster. Stone rebellious children.* Bah! Most of you don't even bother.)
          I hope this clears things up.

Yours truly,

* Actually, I should apologize for that. I was going through some hard times, said things I didn't mean. In retrospect, it wasn't one of My better ideas.

26 March 2010


No other movie in my DVD library effects me as powerfully as Sir Richard Attenborough's Gandhi. The first time I saw it, it so compelled me that I watched the movie several more times that very weekend. As many times as I have seen it, it never fails to provoke a response in me. I've read it described as "cinematic hagiography", a celebratory portrayal of an icon. The film covers Gandhi's life as a political activist, from his initial campaigns in South Africa to his role in India's independence movement spanning most of the 20th century.

Gandhi is well-known for his commitment to nonviolence, a commitment that inspired Dr. Martin Luther King's approach to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. I do not believe I was aware of the moral strength and conviction such a commitment required until I saw Gandhi's depiction in this movie, nor did I appreciate it as I do now. When the film begins, Gandhi is but a young lawyer, one thrown off a train when he refused to leave his first-class ticket. These tickets are denied to all "colored" people, Indians included, and this confrontation begins Gandhi's career in activism. He begins campaigning on behalf of the Indians in South Africa, but from the start holds fast to nonviolence. The film's most poignant moment for me is a speech made to a conference of Indians soon thereafter, where he speaks publicly on the need for nonviolence.

In response to Gandhi's initial campaigns, the British government issues a law requiring that all Indians come forth to be fingerprinted. The law further states that British policemen can search Indian households with no given cause. Outraged at this infringement of human rights, several of the men in the audience swear to kill any British officials who dare insult them in this manner. Gandhi praises their courage, but adds that while he too is prepared to die in this just cause, "there is no cause for which [he] is prepare to kill".

He then proceeds to champion nonviolence, which is rooted not only in Hindi religious philosophy, but out a devotion to what I can only term radical love.

"I am asking you to fight. To fight against their anger, not to provoke it. We will not strike a blow -- but we will receive them. And through our pain, we will make them see their injustice. And it will hurt, as all fighting hurts. But we cannot lose. We cannot. They may torture my body, break my bones -- even kill me. Then they will have my dead body -- not my obedience."

Every time I view this scene, I am struck by the power of it. Gandhi is committed to nonviolence not just to prove his point without making the situation worse, but to force the oppressors to see what their ambition, pride, fear, and anger are lowering them to. He's sacrificing his own comfort -- taking pain -- to help the very people who administer that pain so that both of them may be freed from the oppression. This is a kind of nobility that defies words, and I cannot witness it without being changed by it.

Gandhi and his followers do not champion nonviolence simply out of religious piety or even because of their committment to radical love that goes beyond any system of ideas. It's also pragmatic. Not only does their commitment to nonviolent action rob the oppressors of legitimate excuses to grow ever more horrific, but it ensures a kind of purity among the demonstrators. It weeds out weaker characters, people easily given to bloodshed and close-minded partisanship.  The future first prime minister of India, Mr. Nehru, asks mid-film: if India becomes free through violence and war, what kind of leaders will that throw up?  The viewer need only glance at the history of nations forged by gun-toting revolutionaries, states like the Soviet Union and the First French Republic. Violence begets violence, and I think Gandhi realized that the chain of events must be undone before it leads to greater tragedies. In spite of his yearning for a free India, he and others committed to nonviolence are committed to gaining that independence the right way -- "proving worthy" of it. When the time is come, freedom 'will fall like a ripe apple'. Gandhi and those who support him demonstrate in action their principles, standing up against abuse and demonstrating on behalf of their rights against fierce resistance throughout the movie.

Gandhi's philosophy makes this movie for me, but it is far from Gandhi's only strength. The acting is well-done, and the music is stellar. I adore the depiction of Gandhi in this movie, particularly the character's humbleness, simplicity, and dedication. I don't know that the movie's characterization is quite fair to Mr. Jinnah, the future prime minister of Pakistan: throughout the film he's portrayed as hostile toward Gandhi, and ever self-absorbed. I am not familiar with Gandhi, Nehru, or Jinnah's total biographies, nor with the Indian independence moment as a whole, so I would not be surprised if there are historical inaccuracies done for the sake of making a more dramatic movie. Tension has its place.   A review I read in the course of looking for a specific quote from the movie claims that Attenborough took some liberties but aptly portrayed Gandhi's philosophy and dedication.

I believe this to be a particularly strong movie, remarkable for its depiction of human beings at their very best -- fighting injustice while not becoming party to it,  returning spite for compassion. Gandhi's story, as well as Martin Luther King's, proves that we can fight for our humanity and not lose it in the process.

Here's the trailer that lured me into watching the movie for the first time.

19 March 2010

Anarchism and Humanism

Ever since reading an Emma Goldman reader (Red Emma Speaks), I've been thinking about humanism and anarchism. Anarchism was never an idea that crossed my mind before: to the extent that I thought of it, I regarded anarchism as the province of odd ducks -- people who wanted to reject everything in society, who cared only for themselves and what they wanted to do. The biography of Emile Carles, a fantastically interesting woman who became a freethinking humanist despite her background as a peasant girl in late 19th century France, first exposed me to the thoughts of self-identifying anarchists.  Carles seems to be as passionate a humanist as I, but she saw government as the enemy of her values -- as a tool of the few in power. I was hard-pressed to disagree given her account. Modern nation-states have a frightful amount of power over people, and they are quick to abuse it.  My own feelings of patriotism were already changing during this period: I increasingly distanced myself from politics while yearning for something on a smaller scale --a "human-sized" community where juggernauts were absent. Thanks in part to Stoicism, my moral code became sterner -- more demanding of me to live truly, to seperate myself from culture and live according to rational and human principles.  Laws, tradition, and culture do not matter: only goodness, only justice, only truth.

No gods and no masters for me, then. All the little roads in my life seemed to lead to anarchism: both humanism and Stoicism, for instance,  encourage people to free themselves from slavery -- from the will of outside forces, whatever form they take. Both cultures and dictators can be tyrants: I must stand against both.  When I read Red Emma Speaks, I found much of interest. She, too, stood for humanity: she opposed governments that use people unjustly, of religion that cripples us, of cultural norms.  She was a rabid individualist who derided the great mass of humanity who behave unthinkingly, following whichever flag their priests and politicans offer.  This is hard for a humanist to hear: we wish to believe the best of people. Losing heart in ourselves means conceding defeat to our weaknesses, not gloriously triumphing in spite of them.

I became and matured as a freethinker in 2006, and ever since then I have maintained a no-nonsense state of mind. When I hear an explaination or a model of something -- Marxism and Stoicism are my own personal examples -- I will admit that they sound valid, but I will not admit them into my mind before they show some rational identification of some kind. Whatever the model, if I am to believe it I want to understand it. Believing things without this inquiry is the path to self-deception. I suppose it's linked to naturalism: I call it my "show me the bones" mentality. I want to see what makes the model tick. When the subject is humanity, for instance, my "show me the bones" policy means the idea must rest on our biological heritage. We human beings are natural creatures, who are as inseperaable from Earth's history as elephants, pine trees, and the Indian Ocean.  I think it most likely that our ancestors, prior to settling permanently, acted like modern primates: we lived in family groups.  We are social animals, born into and living in groups. If we try to live by ourselves, utterly alone, I think it probable that we will be miserable.

Our intelligence grants us admittance to another world, the world of culture and beliefs. We live in this one, too. We live in this cultural-social world as assuredly as we live in the western or eastern hemispheres: we breathe ideas as we breathe oxygen.  To what extent can we seperate ourselves from that culture, from society, and be happy?  What balance between staying true to our highest ideals and compromising so to live comfortably within our society is the best for human flourishing? These are questions I am still grappling with, questions I doubt I will have answers for anytime soon.

For me, humanism and anarchism walk the same road for a great distance. They both stand for humanity, rejecting outside influences. Humanism tends to focus its wrath on religion, anarchism on government.  If Emma Goldman and Emile Carles are examples, both believe in the potential of humanity, and that this potential must be freed if it is to be realized in full.  I think, though, there is a point at which the paths diverge: humanism is more community-based, using politics to move society forward in ideals. Anarchism is fixated on the individual, the anarchist's role to be an island in a sea of culture. As much as I sympathize with the anarchist spirit, my heart is and ever shall be a Humanist one.

09 March 2010

The Divine Dialouge

God: Okay, read that back to me.
Moses: What, from the start?
God: No, no, just the stuff we just went over.
Moses: Okay. Ah...don't kill, don't steal, don't covet thy neighbor's stuff.
God: Don't kill, don't steal, don't covet -- yes, that sounds accurate. Is that ten?
Moses: (counts) Ah...eight, nine, ten- yes, O Lord, that is ten.
God: Good. Go and tell the people of Israel what I the Lord have commanded.
Moses:  Yes, O Lord. And afterward?
God: Hm?
Moses: I don't want to hike all the way back up this mountain, O Lord, respectfully.
God: Oh. Yes. Afterward...see that land beyond the river, where thy neighbors the Canaanites live?
Moses: Yes.
God: Well, once you've delivered the laws, I wish for you to cross that river, kill the inhabitants therein, take the virgins for yourselves, live in homes you have not built, and reap from fields that you have not sown.
Moses: You..I'm sorry, run that by me again?
God: Go over there --
Moses: Right.
God: Kill the people..
Moses: ...uh..huh...
God: ...and make yourself at home with their daughters, their homes, and their possessions.
God: Is there a problem? Speak, O Mortal.
Moses: Y-...what about what you just said?
God: What about it?
Moses: Don't kill, don't steal, don't want stuff that isn't yours.
God: I'm not asking you to covet it, am I? Just take it. It's yours. .
Moses: But it isn't mine. It belongs to those guys. The Canaanites.
God: Oh. Well, not really. It's my land. I made it. I was just letting those guys use it. It's yours now.
Moses: O--kay....but shouldn't you tell them? Send an angel, maybe, to escort them somewhere else? It's kinda rude for me to just show up  and say --
God:  Shush! They're heathens! They don't worship me. They're not worthy. Do as I say.
Moses: Um..
God: You remember the pharaoh, Moses?
Moses: Yes..
God: Remember what happened to him?
Moses: Yeah, he wouldn't free us from slavery, sooo...you....killed all the livestock in the land and sent locusts to devour the grain, which uh...doesn't really leave any food for anybody, really. Then you killed a bunch of kids. You uh, you showed him.
God: Do you want me to "show you"?
Moses: Um....not really, no. I'm good.
God: So you're going to...
Moses: Kill the people, take their stuff. Just like you told me not to, only five minutes ago.
God: Well, let's get to it! We've got a covenant to keep! 
Moses: Oy vey.

After giving Moses the law, YHWH commands Moses to take the Israelites to the "Promised Land" of Canaan, inconveniently peopled by various tribes. The Israelites spend the trip killing people, being killed by God, and whining. He eventually grows tired of this, forcing them to wander around in the desert until all the adults have died off and a new generation of people who will listen to him for once have matured. Moses -- for all his toil and tears -- is one of the accursed, so his murderous protege Joshua oversees the subjugation of Canaan.

These Hebrews aren't nice people. They're as savage as you might expect from the era, which is confusing given that they've had contact with a God of absolute justice. Does absolute justice come in the form of slavery, slaughter, and destruction? Are their standards so low? Is their God so wretched?  And lastly, is he so dumb to the idea of irony that he sees nothing wrong with creating "moral codes" and then ordering people to violate them with great zeal?


07 March 2010

Evidence as a Facade

In The Geography of Nowhere, author James Howard Kunstler commented on the Beaux Arts architectural style of the late 19th century, an example of which is seen above. While buildings planned in this style often used Greek-style pillars, Kuntsler notes that the pillars are a lie. They are a facade: they have no functional purpose other than to decorate the building. These buildings are not fashioned on classical principles, but modern: their infastructure is provided by a steel skeleton, not  Doric columns. The buildings pretend to be classically-derived, but they are more modern than not.

That came to mind today when thinking about explanatory models and theories, more particularly about the distinction between a theory that rises from the evidence and a theory that only uses the evidence. This is the difference between evolution, for instance, and creationism. One is the result of Darwin's lifetime of peering at the facts as he knew them. The strength of Darwin's theory lies in his collection of the evidence and his attempt to find explanations that fit it. This is not the case with creationism, particularly the young-earth variety. There, the heart of the idea is belief: belief in the Bible, trust that the words of parochial iron-age personalities thousands of years ago are valid. To be a young-earth creationist, you must use the Bible: that's your "support".  The same is true for holocaust denial: its true base is hatred of Israel. In both instances, the evidence -- Greek pillars -- may be applied to the model in order to justify it, but the real heart of these ideas, their true infastructure, is something else altogether. Thus, these models of evidence are only a facade.

03 March 2010

The Will to Believe

In May 1975, Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan debated Uri Geller on the subject of the paranormal. Asimov's speech, reprinted in a book set during the conference in which the debate took place, is below.

"I do not think that the problem of the refusal-to-believe on the part of magicians is a serious one. It is paralleled by a far greater, far greater, and far more intense refusal-to-disbelieve on the part of almost everyone else. I do not wish to speak specifically of Mr. Geller, though his applies to him, for it is true of anyone who invades the area lying outside the narrow and constricted boundaries of what scientists will, without serious argument, accept.

"The para-scientific fringes are intrinsically glamorous, they are exciting and delightful, and they court belief. Millions will grant the belief and will not be deterred by anything scientists will say, especially since scientists cannot counter with anything equally evocative but can only grumble a spoilsport , 'It isn't so!'

"In fact, so eager are people to believe the essentially incredible that they will resent, even with violence, any effort to advance evidence in the favor of disbelief. If some mystic, with a wide and ardent following, were to disown all his previous statements, if he were to declare his miracles frauds, and his beliefs charlantry, he would lose scarcely a disciple, since one and all would say he had made his statements under compulsion or under a sudden stroke of lunacy. The world will believe anything a mystic will say, however foolish, except an admission of fakery. They actively refuse to disbelieve.

"Is there, therefore, anything to be accomplished by arguing against mystics, or by trying to analyze their beliefs rationally? As a healthful exercise to improve and strengthen one's own rationality, certainly. As a hope to reform fools, never.

"But it doesn't matter. My own attitude is to bid the world, believe! All of you -- believe! Believe whatever you want, for in doing so, whatever misery you bring upon yourself and others, you will nevertheless never affect reality. Though all earth's four billion swear from top to bottom and left to right that the earth is flat and though they kill anyone who dares suspect it might be an oblate spheroid with a few minor irregularities, the earth will nevertheless remain an oblate spheroid with a few minor irregularities."


Personally, I don't like the idea of surrendering to our will to believe.  I do recognize that debating supernaturalism with reason is as in Thomas Paine's view kin to giving medicine to the dead. People believe these things because they want to satisfy various needs and desires -- the need to be intrigued by the mysterious, for instance, or the desire to control even things that lie outside ourselves.

For me, the supernatural is abysmally shallow compared to the wonders of the natural world, and I wonder if this obsession people seem to have with it is inappropriately natural, or the result of cultural indoctrination.

02 March 2010

TV and Me

(One of the many Bill Watterson strips that I've appreciated more as an adult than as a child reading them in the newspapers.)

I have a curious relationship to television. I knew it rarely as a child:  television sets were barred from my parents’ Pentecostal home, and so we only saw shows if we visited friends or relatives or stayed a motel. Like all children, I assumed what my parents said was  true and right to follow, although the rule made increasingly less sense as the years went by. Why could we watch Full House at my aunt’s house, but not at our own?

Eventually television found its way into our home in a very limited form. It never became a central pillar of my life, although I did grow accustomed to a routine of shows and thought my life ill-served if I missed one. When I moved into college dorms for the first time, I gained access to cable television on a constant basis. If I wanted to, I could spend every hour of the day watching something: sitcoms, dramas, documentaries, music, English football matches -- whatever I wanted.

And yet… I didn’t. I was experiencing no lingering conviction from my Pentecostal upbringing:  the anti-television rule made so little sense that I was thwarting it before puberty, covertly hooking up an antennae to a monitor we used for watching VHS tapes to watch shows when my parents were away.  What I was experiencing was the honest enjoyment of life, and had been doing so for a little over a year when I first gained cable access. I found everything mundane to be wonderful -- the skies, the trees, the sound of dogs barking and people talking, even the feel of grass under my fingertips.  This was the result of my leaving the Pentecostal cult and realizing I was a Humanist at heart, someone who wanted to be in love with the world but who had before then been forbidden to.

Now I was madly in love, and television’s enjoyment seemed shallow by comparison. I could and at times did spend hours at a time immersed in the blue glow, but once the day ended I felt nothing but remorse for having wasted the day in such a manner. I cannot say the same of the days I spent under trees, reading Thoreau and writing in my journal, or walking around town with friends and discussing philosophy. Those days I remember vividly: they had a magic about them. I sometimes suspect that everyday could have magic about it, if we truly lived it.

As my formal education increased, my disinterest in television grew. I think this disinterest began when I became a skeptic and started spotting all of the advertising gimmicks in commercials -- the dishonest little tricks advertisers were up to.  More significantly, the past two and a half years have turned me into a social critic, at least in private.  After reading Neil Postman's Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death, I wondered if his advice wasn’t valid. It resonated with the Stoic idea of only concerning ourselves with matters we could control. It seemed to me that Postman was right: people have grown addicted to being entertained by drama outside themselves.

Soon, every facet of my intellectual life was grumbling about television -- it became a tool of consumerism,  a values-defining tyrant as despicable as organized religion, and a medium through which the economic elite manipulate the news in their favor.  It reduces human conversations to exchanges of shallow, obnoxious one-liners while glorifying violence and  prostituting human beauty and love. It’s insulting, insipid, and ignorant.  Worst of all -- it’s noisy! How can a person think through that barrage of moving pictures and sound?

The irony of this is that while my parents go to a church with an official ban against television, they and nearly everyone else in that church possess a well-used set. Their son who has emphatically rejected Pentecostalism and its many decrees, meanwhile, only watches television if it happens to be on while visiting at someone else's home.

That I again have something in common with Pentecostalism makes me uneasy, and I do not like the possibility that I'm becoming a self-righteous snob where television is concerned. I find precious little to recommend television, however: what intelligent and humane shows I do like, I can find on Youtube sans commercials. On those happily rare occasions when I want to slip into a mindless hour, I have DVDs a-plenty of How I Met Your Mother, Boy Meets World, and the like.