23 December 2011

Freethought Friday:

(Robert G. Ingersoll, 1833-1899)
From "How to Reform Mankind".

Let each human being, within the limits of the possible be self-supporting; let every one take intelligent thought for the morrow; and if a human being supports himself and acquires a surplus, let him use a part of that surplus for the unfortunate; and let each one to the extent of his ability help his fellow-men. Let him do what he can in the circle of his own acquaintance to rescue the fallen, to help those who are trying to help themselves, to give work to the idle. Let him distribute kind words, words of wisdom, of cheerfulness and hope. In other words, let every human being do all the good he can, and let him bind up the wounds of his fellow-creatures, and at the same time put forth every effort, to hasten the coming of a better day.

This, in my judgment, is real religion. To do all the good you can is to be a saint in the highest and in the noblest sense. To do all the good you can; this is to be really and truly spiritual. To relieve suffering, to put the star of hope in the midnight of despair, this is true holiness. This is the religion of science. The old creeds are too narrow, they are not for the world in which we live. The old dogmas lack breadth and tenderness; they are too cruel, too merciless, too savage. We are growing grander and nobler.

The firmament inlaid with suns is the dome of the real cathedral. The interpreters of nature are the true and only priests. In the great creed are all the truths that lips have uttered, and in the real litany will be found all the ecstasies and aspirations of the soul, all dreams of joy, all hopes for nobler, fuller life. The real church, the real edifice, is adorned and glorified with all that Art has done. In the real choir is all the thrilling music of the world, and in the star-lit aisles have been, and are, the grandest souls of every land and clime.

"There is no darkness but ignorance."
Let us flood the world with intellectual light.

19 December 2011

A Reading on Cities

Last week, while reading David Byrne's The Bicycle Diaries, I encountered two passages that seemed to be straight out of The Geography of Nowhere. Byrne is a musician who has traveled the world and enjoys exploring the cities he lands in on his folding bicycle.

"Cities, it occurred to me, are physical manifestations of our deepest beliefs and our often unconscious thoughts, not so much as individuals, but as the social animals we are. A cognitive scientist need only look at what we have made -- the hives we have created -- to know what we think and what we believe to be important, as well as how we structure those thoughts and beliefs. It's all there, in plain view, right out in the open; you don't need CAT scans and cultural anthropologists to show you what's going on inside the human mind; its inner workings are manifested in three dimensions, all around us. They're right there -- in the storefronts, museums, temples, shops, and office buildings and in how these structures interrelate, or sometimes don't. They say, in their unique visual language, 'This is what we think matters, this is how we live and how we play.'"  (p.2)

"I try to explore some of these towns -- Dallas, Detroit, Phoenix, Atlanta -- by bike, and it's frustrating. The various parts of town are often 'connected' -- if one can call it that -- mainly by freeways, massive awe-inspiring concrete ribbons that usually kill the neighborhoods they pass through, and often the ones they are supposed to connect as well. The areas bordering expressways inevitably become dead zones. There may be, near the edges of town, an exit ramp leading to a KFC or a Red Lobster, but that's not a neighborhood. What remains of these severed communities is eventually replaced by shopping malls and big-box stores isolated in vast deserts of parking. These are strung along the highways that have killed the towns that the highways were meant to connect. The roads, housing developments with no focus, and shopping centers eventually sprawl as far as the eye can see as the highways inch farther and farther out. Monotonous, tedious, exhausting...and soon to be gone, I suspect."  (p.8)

12 December 2011

Re: Sinews

A few months ago I mentioned here that I've committed myself to a more active lifestyle. Motivated by a health scare, I started walking every morning and eventually added an evening jaunt to my routine as well. I'm happy to report, many weeks later, that the committment endures.

Physically, the results are striking. My legs are stronger than they've ever been, as is my lung performance judging by how steadily the pace of my walk has quickened as the months have passed. Most of my clothes no longer fit, and I have more energy so I'm constantly looking for ways to get in more activity. I'd like to get my bicycle fixed so that I can start touring the countryside on the weekends, for instance, and begin commuting into town on two wheels instead of driving.

In "Sinews" I wrote that I viewed my walks as not just physical exercise, but spiritual exercise: in introducing myself to physical disicpline, I hoped to improve my mind's mastery over the body. The fact that I'm still going on a daily basis, having overcome a great many mornings of discomfort and outright pain, testifies to my success, I suppose. In the beginning I had to stress endurance and persistance to myself, as my feet were still adjusting to the routine. Now they typically no longer pain me, and the aches and soreness come from my legs, protesting at the ever-quickening pace that I speed down the road with.  Some mornings are effortless, and I come home feeling exhilerated from the action and not tired in the least -- but there are mornings when I struggle for every step, when my mind constantly chatters distraction. I must work to keep my focus and maintain my stride, knowing that most of the time this discomfort is temporary and the barrier it represents a phantom: if I push, if I persist, I can make it all the way and marvel that I contemplating giving it a rest earlier.  I suspect the physical results of my exercise are much more noticable than the mental effects: as I read the thoughts of those who have made exercise a daily part of their lives, I can't help but note that everyone admits to days where they have to force themselves to get out there, no matter how long they've been at it.

The walking has been good for me in other ways. The quiet time to myself gives me space and energy to think, and sometimes to muse. It gives me opportunities to appreciate nature. I'm able to practice Stoic nonjudgment every day, especially as we head deeper into winter and I find myself feeling frustrated that the weather is denying me tolerable walking conditions. I can walk when it is freezing out, but when it is freezing, windy, and raining?  I'm not that good at feeling indifferent to physical discomfort!  The most noticable physical result is weight loss, something that I'm quite happy about. That, too, is an opportunity to practice nonjudgment;  while I was able to maintain a losing streak for a couple of months,during the last week of November that ended when I gained an ounce. The next week I lost it and much more, but I had to remember that my focus is not losing weight but staying active.

Aside from the physical gains (or losses), the greatest boon of my walking is that it gets me active in my neighborhood. My neighbors have become accustomed to seeing me: I recognize their cars as they drive by me, and I wave cheerfully at everyone. I'm able to talk with someone almost every day -- kids riding bikes after school, a man raking leaves from his yard, an elderly fellow watching the ducks in the pond behind his yard in the morning. I know most every dog in the neighborhood. There are friendly dogs and hostile dogs, dogs that bark from behind fences but which are cowards outside of them, dogs that are friendly when I walk but who chase me when I jog. I feel like part of the neighborhood; my life is daily connected to the lives of others. I have even had people join me on walks.

And so, I look forward to many more future walks and my increasing good health.

09 December 2011

Recommended Reading

I cannot overestimate the importance of books in my journey from credulity and Pentecostalism to skepticism and humanism, nor their role in my continued growth as a humanist, in understanding the world and human society more fully. Books are not idle entertainment: they can change our lives. I've thought for some time that I'd like to develop a list of the books that I have most profoundly helped me these last five years. This list is subject to change (addition, pruning, etc) in the future, and is organized roughly by genre.

Science and Skepticism
Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, V.S. Ramachandran
Universe on a T-Shirt, Dan Falk
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Carl Sagan
The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan
Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins
The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins
Our Inner Ape, Frans de Waal
A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
Darwin's Ghost, Steve Jones
Evolution for Everyone, David Sloan Wilson

Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman
Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman
The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler
The Age of Absurdity, Michael Foley
In Praise of Slowness, Carl Honoré.  I'm reluctant to include this on the list because it is uncritical of homeopathy, but the section on medicine is only one in an otherwise strong book.
American Mania: When More Isn't Enough, Peter Whybrow
The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederich Engels

A People's History of America, Howard Zinn
Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond
African Exodus, Christopher Stringer
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles C. Mann
Theories for Everything: An Illustrated History of Science, various authors.
Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages, Joseph and Frances Gies
The History of Science (On the Shoulders of Giants)  series by Ray Spangenburg and Diane Kit Moser.

The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton
Red Emma Speaks, Emma Goldman (edited by Alix Kates Shulman)
To Have or to Be?, Erich Fromm
The Art of Living, Sharon Lebell (interpretation of Epictetus' Handbook)
The Emperor's Handbook, translation of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations.
A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William B. Irvine
The Art of Happiness and Ethics for a New Millenium, the Dalai Lama
Dhammapada, Max Müller, annotated by Jack Macguire
The Humanist Anthology, Margaret Knight

Asimov's Guide to the Bible, Volume I: The Old Testament; Isaac Asimov
The Zinn Reader, Howard Zinn
The Assault on Reason, Al Gore.
The Prophet and Sand and Foam, Kahlil Gibran
A Life of Her Own, Emile Carles.
God's Problem, Bart Ehrman

27 November 2011


Human spaceflight seems to have entered a lull at the moment, but recently NASA launched the Curiosity rover toward Mars. Just think of the academic and technical understanding it took to construct this large robot, hurl it beyond the tug of Earth's gravity, and then arrange -- from hundreds of millions of kilometers away -- its multi-staged landing onto another world. It is easy to look at the state of the world and bemoan human frailty, but the discoveries and power of science never fail to lift my spirits...and I know of no more dramatic example of either than the exploration of the Cosmos.  I wish the likes of Carl Sagan were here to witness Curiosity make landfall next year.

From Space.com:  10 Amazing Things NASA's Huge Mars Rover Can Do

11 November 2011

Armistice Day


On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918,  one of the most destructive wars in human history finally ended.  At the time, people were so shaken by its length, horror, and cost that they simply referred to it as the Great War. We know it now as the 'First World War'. It holds a special meaning for me, effectively ending the period of human history I concentrate most on, and for me the Great War is war at its basest. It schooled me in the cost of patriotism and nationalism; it taught me the virtue of pacifism. In a war as ugly and purposeless as the Great War, the only moral option was to refuse to participate. Today we honor the millions of young men who were butchered for their government's greed, pride, and vanity. It happened then; it happened again; it will continue to happen unless we resist, and until we stop honoring propaganda's idea of the 'cause'. 

Normally on this date I post a specific song in tribute to the fallen, called "The Green Fields of France". It honors the victims of the war without honoring the war, which I like. Since last year I have heard another appropriate song, and while it may be more appropriate for ANZAC Day, I think its message serves just as well here.

When I was a young man I carried me pack
And I lived the free life of the rover
From the Murray's green basin to the dusty outback
I waltzed my Matilda all over
Then in 1915 my country said: Son,
It's time to stop rambling, there's work to be done
So they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun
And they sent me away to the war 

And the band played Waltzing Matilda
When the ship pulled away from the quay
And amid all the tears, flag waving and cheers
We sailed off for Gallipoli 

It well I remember that terrible day
When our blood stained the sand and the water
And how in that hell they call Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter
Johnny Turk, he was ready, he primed himself well
He rained us with bullets, and he showered us with shell
And in five minutes flat, we were all blown to hell
He nearly blew us back home to Australia 

And the band played Waltzing Matilda
When we stopped to bury our slain
Well we buried ours and the Turks buried theirs
Then it started all over again 

Oh those that were living just tried to survive
In that mad world of blood, death and fire
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
While around me the corpses piled higher
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head
And when I awoke in me hospital bed
And saw what it had done, I wished I was dead
I never knew there was worse things than dying 

Oh no more I'll go Waltzing Matilda
All around the green bush far and near
For to hump tent and pegs, a man needs both legs
No more waltzing Matilda for me 

They collected the wounded, the crippled, the maimed
And they shipped us back home to Australia
The armless, the legless, the blind and the insane
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla
And when the ship pulled into Circular Quay
I looked at the place where me legs used to be
And thank Christ there was no one there waiting for me
To grieve and to mourn and to pity 

And the Band played Waltzing Matilda
When they carried us down the gangway
Oh nobody cheered, they just stood there and stared
Then they turned all their faces away 

Now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Renewing their dreams of past glories
I see the old men all tired, stiff and worn
Those weary old heroes of a forgotten war
And the young people ask "What are they marching for?"
And I ask myself the same question 

And the band plays Waltzing Matilda
And the old men still answer the call
But year after year, their numbers get fewer
Someday, no one will march there at all 

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
Who'll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?
And their ghosts may be heard as they march by the billabong
So who'll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?

09 November 2011

The KunstlerCast

The KunstlerCast: Conversations with James Howard Kunstler
...the tragic comedy of suburban sprawl.
© 2011 Duncan Crary, James Howard Kunstler
300 pages

James Howard Kunstler is a journalist turned social critic and the author of numerous books, most prominently The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century. These two books address the seemingly disparate topics of urban planning and the global oil economy, but to Kunstler and like-minded readers, they are troublesomely knit together, intensifying the problems that each causes. For the past three years, Kunstler has talked each week with on these and connected topics with his co-host, Duncan Crary, who has now produced a partial record of their discussions -- a collection which will no doubt please Kunstler's fans, while offering those unfamiliar with his work their first taste of it.

Although his modern work ties to his predictions for the post-oil future, most of Kunstler's nonfiction works fall within the realm of urban criticism. Americans who have never encountered his ire may be staggered by how much of their world he holds in scorn. Just what is it about the modern city and suburban sprawl that he finds so appalling?  In a word, everything. The opening sentence of The Geography of Nowhere, in which Kunstler attempts to summarize why he wrote the book, is a paragraph long.  The growth of American cities and later,  the 'edge' cities that grew out of suburbian sprawl, has centered on the automobile, and the result is the decline of public transit like rail lines in favor of highways -- infrastructure built on the promise of cheap gasoline, and frightfully ugly to behold. Its decentralization destroys the integrity of human communities and is in part responsible for the rising obesity problem in the U.S:  our automobile-fixated culture gives people few opportunities to incorporate activity like walking into their everyday life, for now every trip anywhere demands the car. The results are hideous: compare an eight-line commercial strip lined with box stores,  oceans of pavement, and offensive, neon-colored signs the size of trucks to the charm of what once was, to the tree-lined American Main Street with its cozy stores and pedestrian focus.  The good news, for Kunstler and those who sympathize, is that this horror cannot long remain: it is doomed by its dependency on oil.

The second half of Kunstler's legacy, originating in The Long Emergency and a source of constant chatter among the author and his co-host, is the idea of peak oil and its ramifications. The cancerous growth of urban sprawl has been enabled by the abundance of cheap oil, but that era is drawing to a close. The United States' oil reserves have already dwindled, and soon enough the oil wells of the middle east and Russia will dry, too. The consequences for a global economy built on oil -- oil to run the ships and trucks that connect manufacturing and distribution, oil to process food -- for food is an industrial, not an agricultural product these days -- are dire. Kunstler sees the fabric of globalization partially disintegrating, and local economies reviving. Everything, including the cities, will shrink to a smaller scale -- a human-sized scale. The unviable sprawl will die, and authentic human communities will prosper once more, while bemoaning the amount of resources that were wasted  in the "cheap oil fiesta".

KunstlerCast's conversations tend to focus more on Kunstlers' urban critiques than the peak oil scenario, though the two are connected to the point that the whole of the book flows together well, aside from some small deviations wherein Kunstler takes time to grouch about tattoos. I found these breaks more amusing than anything, and the book as a whole a positive delight, one which prompted me to begin re-reading The Geography of Nowhere.  While Kunstlers' arguments as a whole are more thoroughly presented in the two books previously mentioned, the format of KunstlerCast allows the author and his host to discuss contemporary, related, and specific issues not mentioned in the 1993 book, or only mentioned in passing, like the health consequences of an automobile-centered society or the work of other critics like Jane Jacobs. They also cover ground visited in its lesser-known books, like Home from Nowhere and The City in Mind. I especially enjoyed these sections, as I've not been able to get my hands on these books despite my interest in them. Thus, while covering familiar ground the conversations also introduce new material, making them of interest to Kunstler fans. Newcomers may appreciate a less formal introduction to these issues, especially given how easy it is to "listen" to the banter-filled conversation between these two intelligent and thoughtful men.

Given the present economics of the world, Kunstler's work has never been more relevant, and is now all the more accessible. This is a hit for old fans and the newly interested alike. The KunstlerCast may be found at KunstlerCast.com,  with archives as far back as 2008. Duncan Crary was once co-host of The Humanist Network News (now known as The Humanist Hour) and in fact interviewed him there before the start of their mutual project together.

07 November 2011

Singing History's Song

Tonight an odd video appeared in my facebook newsfeed, the tale of the Norman conquest set to a pop song from the 90s.  The same artist-historian has recorded dozens of these songs, and I'm still relishing them. Behold!

There are dozens of more!

24 October 2011

The Good Fight

While on YouTube a few months back I encountered a beautiful song by activist-singer Evan Greer. I couldn't find lyrics, so I transcribed them myself.

Well, I've written many songs
about the things that have gone wrong
The wars, and the killings, and the lies
This world is full of hate and there is so much at stake
We must fight for our rights and for our lives
We've gotta raise a fist for our right to exist
in a world where freedom is a lie (alive?)
Strikes they will rage, black flags we'll wave
The rich will have fear in their eyes
But when the fight is done,
The revolution won,
We'll burn the final flag and walk on.

And if we close our eyes and hold each others' hands
And if we sing boldly in the night
We will watch the sun rise through the tears in our eyes
Knowing that we fought the good fight.

Behind our black bandanas
There's a love so strong  it can't be stayed
For every living thing in every song that we can sing
Each garden and each house that we have made
We know that in the end we can count upon our friends
To have a love stronger than the state
'Cause the tear gas makes us cry, the bullets make us die
But in the end, we will push beyond that gate --
Save the world and save the trees, set our comrades free
Rejoice though the coming was so late

And if we close our eyes and hold each others' hands
And if we sing out boldly in the night
We will watch the sun rise through the tears in our eyes
Knowing that we fought the good fight.

I met an old man outside an ice-cream stand
And in an old voice, he said to me
"You are young and you are strong, and you will find where you belong --
But remember that no man is your enemy.
It's the borders and the nations and the giant corporations,
But not a single living being."
So we struggle not for chaos, but for harmony
And we would rather fight instead of die
We struggle for the dawn, whose side are you on?
You'll know when we raise our voices high.

And if we close our eyes and hold each others' hands
And if we sing boldly in the night
We will watch the sun rise through the tears in our eyes
Knowing that we fought the good fight.

14 October 2011

Freethought Friday #29

From Will Durant's The Age of Reason Begins, "The Summons to Reason", quoting Francis Bacon:

And as Descartes seventeen years later in the Discourse on Method, would propose to begin philosophy by doubting everything, so Bacon here demands an 'expurgation of the intellect' as the first step in the Renewal. 'Human knowledge as we have it is a mere medley and ill-digested mass, made up of much credulity and much accident, and also of the childish notions which are at first imbibed.' Therefore we must, at the start, clear our minds, so far as we can, of all preconceptions, prejudices, assumptions, and theories; we must turn away even from Plato and Aristotle; we must sweep out of our thought the 'idols', or time-honored illusions and fallacies, born of our personal idiosyncrasies of judgment or the traditional beliefs and dogmas of our group; we must banish all logical tricks of wishful thinking, all verbal absurdities of obscure thought. We must put behind us all those majestic deductive systems of philosophy, which proposed to draw a thousand eternal verities out of a few axioms and principles.  There is no magic hat in science; everything taken from the hat in works must first be put into it by observation by experiment. And not by mere casual observation, nor by "simple enumeration" of data", but by "experience....sought for, experiment." 

30 September 2011

Freethought Friday #28: Beauty of Understanding

View a picture of a rainbow at sunset here.

To those who value the vision of the human mind organizing observations into natural law and then using natural law to grasp the workings of what had until then been mysterious, the rainbow has gained added significance and beauty through Newton's discovery, because, to a far greater extent than before, it can be understood and truly appreciated. To those of a more limited fancy, who prefer mindless staring to understanding, and simple-minded fairy tales of gods crossing bridges to the dancing changes of light in accordance with a system that can be written as an elegant mathematical expression, I suppose it is a loss.

Isaac Asimov, "The Bridge of the Gods".

It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot.

23 September 2011


Shall I show you the sinews of a philosopher? "What sinews are those?" - A will undisappointed; evils avoided; powers daily exercised, careful resolutions; unerring decisions.

(Epictetus; the Discourses, book two.)

In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present- I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?- But this is more pleasant.- Dost thou exist then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?

(Marcus Aurelius; Meditations, book five.)

Such were the words that compelled me to rise from my bed a few weeks ago and, after dressing, make my way outside to begin walking my way toward a healthier lifestyle. Throughout the summer I thought to myself that I would like to begin such a morning exercise, but  I never engaged in "zerizus*": I never converted that will into action.  Even though I began studying Stoicism in 2008, up until now I have only applied discipline toward the easy things, matters of the mind -- emotions, thoughts. As an introspective person,  maintaining control over mind comes naturally. My lifestyle has been sedentary since middle school, though, and pushing myself to be physically active is much more difficult. I am unpracticed at it: my commands are weak. But I must develop the physical sinews of a philosopher:  not only does my future health demand it, but I need those sinews to continue growing into the person I want to be -- 'a man in full'.

A bit over a month ago, I was taken to the doctor's office after weeks of deteriorating health: my appetite had dwindled, I often went days without sleeping, and I could not walk more than short distances without being reduced to gagging and retching. I tend to take a "this, too, shall pass" attitude toward illness, but my family members were not quite as content to watch me circle the drain. At their urging, I grudgingly visited the doctor -- who diagnosed me with high blood pressure, hypertension enough to threaten stroke.  I walked out of the doctor's office with pills and orders to avoid pork and minimize salt intake.  The medicine had an immediate effect: my restless legs quietened and gave me sleep, and I began breathing much easier. Determined to make the most of this opportunity I'd been given to reclaim my life,  I walked out of the door that brisk morning a few weeks ago and I have been exercising the muscles of physical discipline ever since. I have been ever-more mindful of my eating habits, and increased the length of my morning walk steadily to two miles (at present). It is my hope that a healthier diet and a daily habit of exercise will eventually make medication unnecessary, for what Stoic wants to be dependent on an external like that?

Just as a stalled train is an opportunity to practice patience, and a broken friendship a time to meditate on grace and learn serenity, so to was this medical crisis  an impetus for me to put into effect something I had wanted to do  for a while. I do not wish to be sedentary: I have worked this month not to help lower my blood pressure, or to lose wight, but to begin a habit which will flower into an active lifestyle.  For me, sitting for hours at a time reading a thick book and musing and writing on ideas is a joy -- but I also know the pleasures to be had in prolonged physical exertion, the joy of action, of movement. I enjoy activities like basketball and hiking, and I wish to do them all the more. I never feel better all day than I do in the moments after that morning walk, when the steady sound of my shoes on the pavement stops dominating my mind and I realize how good I feel.

So far I have kept my practice up for a month: I do not anticipate changing it for the seasons or weather, although I suppose if there is a tornado meandering through the neighborhood I would wait in safety, and give the cyclone its privacy. I see this physical activity as contributing to the whole of my life -- not just in allowing me to enjoy more activities, but in other areas as well. I delight in seeing my neighborhood so early in the morning; the sun is still rising, and often there's a mist that hangs over the road and lawns. I've seen sublimely beautiful scenes while out and about. I've talked more with my neighbors in the past two weeks than I have for the past ten years of my life preceding them. Further, in addition to losing weight and strengthening my limbs, I am strengthening those philosopher's sinews:  there are mornings when I am tired, and wish to stop early -- but I take command, and I push myself to keep walking. My body tires, and slows down -- I push it to regain its productive pace.  My feet ache; I walk through them. Day by day, I strengthen my mind's command over the body:  with every step, my will gains mastery:  I  have learned from Buddha and Epictetus that great results lie in consistently taking the right actions, small as they may be -- just as as a steady supply of water drops eventually fills a pot. It is no accident to that Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus often made allusions to physical training when counseling themselves and others. I found the walk to be a way to practice meditation: indeed, it seems the best way to make it to the end, as when I am meditating I am not mindful of any aches, and the time slips by quickly so that I have gone half and mile and cannot recall walking it.  Yet walk it I did, and walk I will continue to do. I am growing in the direction of my ideals: not only growing in my ability to be physically active, but assuming total (mental and physical) command of myself.

* A word I heard from a rabbi named Zelig Pliskin, who teaches mindfulness in a Jewish context and describes it as "the joyful art of taking action".

16 September 2011

An Essay on Man

In lieu of a quotation...some of my favorite verses from Alexander Pope.  This is only the first: the second begins, "Go, wondrous creature, mount where Science guides!". I first discovered it in The Ascent of Science.

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or beast;
In doubt his mind and body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks to little, or too much;
Chaos of thought and passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself, abus'd or disabus'd;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

09 September 2011

Freethought Friday #27: The High Road

Robert G. Ingersoll, 1833 - 1899

From "Individuality".

In my judgment, every human being should take a road of his own. Every mind should be true to itself -- should think, investigate and conclude for itself. This is a duty alike incumbent upon pauper and prince. Every soul should repel dictation and tyranny no matter from what source they come -- from earth or heaven from men or gods. Besides, every traveler upon this vast plain should give to every other traveler his best idea as to the road that should be taken. Each is entitled to the honest opinion of all. And there is but one way to get an honest opinion upon any subject whatever. The person giving the opinion must be free from fear. The merchant must not fear to lose his custom, the doctor his practice, nor the preacher his pulpit. There can he no advance without liberty. Suppression of honest inquiry is retrogression, and must end in intellectual night.

02 September 2011

Freethought Friday #26: Worth Fighting For

"And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for it is the one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost."

(East of Eden)

Strictly speaking, I don't know anything about John Steinbeck's approach to truth and values. He could have been a skeptic or the devoutest of Christians. Regardless of what he believed, though,  what has been quoted is certainly a statement worthy of any healthy individual, and perfectly in line with skeptical values.  It has been seen at this blog before, as part of "My Worldview in Quotations".

15 August 2011

How TV Ruined Your Life

Yesterday I enjoyed a six-part series on the deleterious effects of television by a British comedian, Charlie Booker. The episodes are as follows:

1. "Fear"

In the first episode, Booker takes television to task for its longstanding reliance on stimulating the brain's fear-response centers, beginning with government public safety programs and then moving on to the constant use of violence in drama and the news.

2. "The Life Cycle"

Booker examines the portrayal and targeting of various age groups -- from the depiction of married men as hapless idiots to the way older people are pushed into the periphery.

3. "Aspiration"

Neil Postman, known for Amusing Ourselves to Death, once commented that commercials advocate a way of life and standards of normalcy more than they do actual products. In this third episode, Booker notes the way commercials and some programs (like Dallas) encourage mindless consumerism that keeps people on a hedonic treadmill, forever chasing the carrot and forever failing.

4. "Love"

The depiction of love and romance in movies and in television have given people unreasonable and unhealthy expectations from what to expect of relationships, as they ignore the substance of companionate love and the work of relationships in favor of stories of soul mates meeting and making Big Gestures to impress one another.

5. "Progress"

Here, Booker rages against the notion that people can find everything they want inside a glowing blue green -- from televisions to iPads.

6. "Knowledge"

In this final segment, the host tracks the decline of educational programming from the heights (The Ascent of Man, Civilization), to the gutter -- ghost-hunting shows hunted by idiot celebrities.

23 July 2011

"Nothing learned, and everything forgotten!"

"Tragic failures become moral sins only if one should have known better from the outset. In that regard there are two big differences between us and eleventh-century Anasazi Indians: scientific understanding, and literacy. We know, and they didn't know, how to draw graphs that plot sustainable resource population as a function of resource harvesting rate. We can read about all the ecological disasters of the past; the Anasazi couldn't. Yet our generation continues to hunt whales and clear tropical rain forest as if no one had never hunted moas or cleared pinyon-juniper woodlands. The past was still a Golden Age of ignorance, while the present is an Iron Age of willful blindness.

From this point of view it's beyond understanding to see modern societies repeating the past's suicidal ecological mismanagment, with much more powerful tools of destruction in the hands of far more people. It's as if we hadn't already run that particular film many times before in human history, and as if we didn't know the inevitable outcome. Shelley's sonnet "Ozymandias" evokes Persepolis, Tikal, and Easter island equally well; perhaps it will someday evoke to others the ruins of our own civilization."

p. 337, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, © 1992, 2006. Jared Diamond.

08 July 2011

See that fire in the sky...

As I write, the space shuttle Atlantis  is speeding at 6500 miles per hour through the Earth's atmosphere.  Moments ago I watched it launch, using a high-definition feed from NASA. Today marked the last flight of NASA's space shuttle program, and I for one will miss it. I think myself privileged to have grown up in the 1990s, at a time when human spaceflight was an accomplished fact and the future of it seemed bright. I visited space centers and saw the presence of the International Space Station as a comforting promise of a brighter tomorrow -- a tomorrow in which Earth was united and at peace. Shuttle launches were a regular event, so ordinary that the news media largely ignored them except in the case of disasters like Columbia.  The destruction of Columbia bothered me: how could I have not known that this ship was taking off from Earth, entering space, docking with a space station, and then landing again? How could such an astounding technical accomplishment go by unremarked by everyone until something went wrong?

Ever since then I have followed the shuttles' launches, sometimes changing my desktop background on the day of an actual shuttle launch. I have also followed the accomplishments of Europe's space program, and to a lesser degree the operations of China, Japan, and Russia. Russia deserves more notice, especially given that their Soyuz craft will be solely responsible for transporting astronauts to the ISS. I've known for some time now that the shuttle program was scheduled to cease in 2010, but took some comfort in the idea that this was necessary to retool the shuttle bays and yards for the next generation of spacecraft. Given the economic downturn, that seems unlikely. I am not distressed, however, for I view the future with a historian's eyes. I know progress is not an unbroken road, that sometimes there are bumps and we must pause to collect ourselves before proceeding.  This may be one of those times, but in the decades to come humanity will continue its exploration of the cosmos.  In fact, it won't stop even with the loss of the shuttles, for there are other space agencies -- like the European Space Agency, which has landed probes on Titan. I tend to relate to the shuttles more easily, though, given their size and appearance, which spoke to the potential for actual space ships more effectively than probes or the Soyuz craft.

Prometheus, they say, brought God's fire down to man
And we've caught it, tamed it, trained it, since our history began
And now we're going back to heaven, just to look him in the eye
And there's a thunder cross the land, and a fire in the sky

Gagarin was the first, back in 1961, when like Icarus undaunted, he climbed to reach the sun
And he knew he might not make it, for it's never hard to die,
But he lifted off the pad
And rode a fire in the sky

Yet a higher goal was calling, and we vowed we'd reach it soon
And we gave ourselves a decade
To put fire on the moon
And Apollo told the world,
We Can Do It If We Try
There was One Small Step, and a fire in the sky!

I dreamed last night of a little boy's first spaceflight
It turned into me watching a black and white TV
There was a fire in the sky...
I'll remember until I die
A fire in the sky! A fire in the sky!

Then two decades from Gagarin, twenty years to the day
Came a shuttle named Columbia to open up the way
And they say she's just a truck, but she's a truck that's aimin' high
See her big jets burning! See her fire in the sky!

Yet the gods do not give lightly of the powers they have made
And with Challenger and seven, once again the price was paid
Though a nation watched her falling
Yet a world could only cry..
As they passed from us to glory, riding fire in the sky!

Now the rest is up to us,
And there's a future to be one
We must turn our faces outward
We will do what must be done
For no cradle lasts forever,
Every bird must learn to fly
And we're going to the stars, see our fire in the sky! 
Yes, we're going to the stars -- see our fire in the sky
I'll remember 'til I die, a fire in the sky....

26 June 2011

A Musical History of Ignorance

What's that big thing in the sky, watching over us?
It must know things that we don't know, we give it all our trust!
I have no food, our caves are bare, life sucks we all agree!
I guess that big thing in the sky is freaking mad at me!
Soooo let's build a fire and kill a goat and burn some virgins too!
And then good luck will come to us, our Sun will see us through!

Recently Neurovore shared this piece with me, a history of ignorance (mythology, astrology, the four humors, spiritualism, red scares,  etc) set to a history of music, beginning with a stone age chant and...'progressing' to autotuned homeopathic techno-rap.

Visiting Episcopalians

Photo taken a few weeks ago. 
For a few weeks now I have wanted to attend a morning service at my local Episcopalian church (St. Paul's) for various reasons. It's a beautiful building, and strangely enough part of me wants to associate with it. The Episcopalians I've met have all been so kind, and the church's stances so liberal and progressive, that I thought I might feel at home.    I knew it would be an altogether strange experience for me, seeing as the only kind of church service I've ever attended has been Pentecostal.

Also taken a few weeks ago.
I arrived early to ensure I had a parking space, and met one of the rectors in the courtyard, who I recognized from the church website. St. Paul's  has two rectors: a bearded man in his late fifties or sixties, and a woman in her forties. I met the man, who represented his tradition well -- being an altogether friendly fellow who sounded like Mr. Rogers and who answered all my questions. After giving me a bulletin, he left to get ready for service. The sanctuary was only then being unlocked, so I was privy to some of the dedicatory ritual.

Photo taken last summer, though my viewfinder was not functioning at the time so it's a bit off-center. 

The interior is crossed shaped, the majority of the sanctuary being a great long shaft where the rows of pews are arranged. Beautiful stained-glass windows representing scenes from Jesus' life ran down the walls. The aisle-shaft ends at the entrance doors on one end, and at the altar at another. The altar was made of stone, though covered by cloth, and had a large golden cross upon it. On either side of the cross were candles, which robed individuals solemnly lit as the organ played. Before tending to this, the robed individuals stopped in front of the cross and bowed gently to it.

Also taken last summer.

While the Pentecostal churches I attended in my earlier years consisted of loud, active sound services following by a screaming sermon, the Episcopalians were decidedly more low-key and 'reverent'. As the rector told me, Episcopalians have a liturgical service in which Bible readings, creeds, and prayers (interspersed with hymns played on an organ) are central. The readings and prayers vary from service to service and from season to season, but since they're all from the same Book of Common Prayer,  everybody following it will have the same essential service. The sermon, or homily, appears to be prepared to complement the verses and prayers for that day
As I sat reading the order of service in my bulletin and attempting to find the readings and such in the Book of Common Prayer  people filtered in silently. While a few shook hands with friends, they maintained an atmosphere of reverence. Some stopped before entering their pews to bow gently toward the cross, while others sat and knelt in their pews.  Among them was my old history professor, a beloved old retired Marine and professional curmudgeon who reminds me of Mark Twain. I thought him a strict rationalist, so it surprised me to see him enter, take a pew a row or so ahead of me, and kneel. "Bless his cynical old soul," I thought, "Is he praying?"

The service began at ten o'clock, where a procession appeared behind my shoulders singing beautifully.  They were all robed: the man in front carried a large golden cross on a pole, and behind him another man held a golden book in his white gloves They sang as they marched up the aisle toward the altar, and I enjoyed the spectacle while keeping a solemn look on my face. The clergy appeared to be dressed in green, and there were other members in the processing wearing white robes and green sashes. It reminded me of university  graduation processions, where a man in medieval costume escorts graduates while holding a golden miter proudly in his hands.

The opening service consisted of music (played on an organ, which the audience sometimes sang along with and sometimes didn't),  Bible readings,  and back-and-forth prayers in which the rector read half of a bible verse or prayer and the congregation read the other.  While I looked through the Book of Common Prayer I could not make sense of the table of contents, so I just remained silent throughout the service, sitting and standing on cue by following the lead of others before me. (I messed up once, when we were told to pray: three people on the other side stood up, and I stood up with them -- but the rest of the church entered a kneel, so I swore quietly and found a more prayerful position.) A man from the audience read a passage of the Bible in which Abraham is told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, and nearly does but God sends him a sheep.  This is one of my least favorite bible stories: if you have enough faith to kill at God's command, you have too much faith. The cross-and-golden book procession appeared from the altar and moved into the center of the congregation while more prayers were said.

Presently, one of the rectors -- a female, which pleased me -- gave a short sermon or homily on the topic, "Give it Up". This was based off of the earlier lay reading, but she spoke on the acceptance of loss and the need to give up some habits and attachments which diminish us.  After this they said a blessing, and some people stood up to leave.  I though service was over, but after people talked and shook hands for a few minutes the other rector  stood up and I scurried back to my seat. My professor was one of the ones who left, and I realized we were about to go into the Communion part of the service.

After a few more readings and songs (among the ritual, the Nicene Creed and Our Father prayer), they took up offering. I gave a few dollars out of thanks to the Episcopal church for its progressive stances on various things, and my professor -- let's call him Mr. Twain --  reappeared and suggested I  fill out a visitor's card.  Another procession went up the aisle, this time carrying a golden bowl of purple fluid (wine, I assume) and another dish, which I think might have been the host for Eucharist. I started filling out a card as soon as we sat down, which I think was a mistake because people went utterly silent while the rectors or priests were blessing the communion articles.

Both the professor and the lead rector told me I was welcome to take Communion despite not being Episcopalian,  but it seemed inappropriate to me so I decided I would sit in my pew. The itch to see what happened up there overrode that, though. I knew from the rector and a Catholic deacon that I could cross my arms once I got up there and have a blessing said over me instead, so I chose to do that instead.

I stood in line at the altar platform, ascending the steps as the line moved.  In front of the altar was a long, golden rail, and a place for people to kneel in front of it. Behind the rail, clergy officials -- the rectors and a few others -- gave pieces of the host, or crackers (this was a very serious moment and I was trying to be respectful, so I didn't ogle much, and couldn't confirm what kind of bread it was) to people who were kneeling. As soon as space cleared up,  I carefully knelt down. The female rector came to me, and I crossed my arms as instructed. She asked my name, and I whispered, "Stephen", then played my hands in a prayer position upon the rail as she made the sign of the cross upon my forehead and told me, among other things, that I was a special creation of God. I closed my eyes and bowed my head as seemed appropriate, so I didn't see how the wine was administered to others. I then took my place in the pews again.

After another prayer and song (a prayer which somehow incorporated astronomy and evolution into the Christian story), we began to get ready for dismissal. The cross-and-golden-book procession moved into the back again, singing beautifully as they had done the first time,  and soon the grand old doors opened and everyone was coming by to say hello. They were friendly, and afterwards I had lemonade while Mr. Twain gave me a tour of the church's innards.

I promised to come back, and I will. Although I can't say things like the Nicene Creed, I enjoyed witnessing the ceremonies. The people were very friendly, and I'd love to spend more time with my old mentor.

Photo taken last year.

24 June 2011

Book Review: God is not One

Back in late 2007, while thinking on what direction this blog might take once I'd hammered out my basic philosophical worldview, I thought about posting movie- and book- reviews on subjects skeptics, humanists, et. al would find of interest.  By that time I'd already started a book blog (This Week at the Library), and I decided not to go through with the book reviews here as I assumed it would be redundant. I reconsider almost every time  I read a book on religion or skepticism, though, and tonight I've decided to cross-post for the first time. For those who follow TWATL, the review is exactly the same, though future reviews might be somewhat different: I write to a more general crowd over there. I can see editing reviews for an audience I assume to be mostly skeptical here.
God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Rule the World and Why Their Differences Matter

© 2010 Stephen Prothero
400 pages

Despite the promises of modernity to drive religion out of the human mind, the New York City skyline bears witness to its continuing relevance. While religion can serve as a force for good,  it’s a master at nurturing the darker sides of human nature, and the good religions have achieved is often a testament to the moral courage of humans who have fought to push these systems of thought beyond their origins.  Some have gone so far as to say that the differences between religions are unimportant, that they are merely different paths up the same broad mountain which arrive at the same place. Stephen Prothero says different.  None of this tearing-down-the-walls-that-divide-us nonsense for Prothero, he intends to prove that religions are all rigidly disconnected boxes, and that while we may choose to shake hands with or shake fists at the fellows in the other boxes, we can only do it through tight little windows.

I looked forward to grappling with this book, largely because my own mind is so divided on the subject: while I believe that all religions were created by human beings to understand the world and perhaps to better themselves,  I also know that some religions are so defined by their aggressive assertions that they cannot easily find peace with other.  I found God is not One to be an unsatisfactory sparring partner, however, being  frustratingly simplistic, and ultimately disappointing.  In the first eight chapters, Prothero analyzes eight  of the the world’s major religion’s through  four-points:

  • a problem
  • a solution
  • a technique
  • an exemplar

He believes each of these religions (Islam, Confucianism, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Yoruba, Taoism, Hinduism) attempts to address one of eight different problems in human nature, and offers eight fundamentally different approaches to life based on that problem.  This analysis is entirely too simplistic for the problem at hand, however. While it’s possible to identify characteristics within a religion that make them unique, those characteristics do notconstitute the religion. This eight religions, eight boxes organization ignores the more fundamental similarities religions might have:  the constant cycle of life/death/rebirth in Hinduism and Buddhism, for instance, and the hateful split between the material and spiritual worlds that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are so keen on convincing us of. 

A second problem with this is one Prothero tip-toes around: although the eight religions he identifies here do have many varied differences, they are not necessarily hostile.  Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism have all existed in China together for centuries, for instance: they each have different offerings, and people happily sample beliefs and practices from each table, cafeteria-style, arriving at a worldview that meets their needs. Prothero speaks of religions ruling the world like hostile nation-states, but not all religions are as imperialistic (and therefore, conflict-prone) as the dominant forms of Christianity and Islam.  The Asian triplets point out the greatest problem with this book, Prothero’s sinister attitude about the relationship between humans and religion.  He would have us owned by religion, forced to live within that particular religion’s box. In the beginning, he snorts that attempts at interfaith dialogue which ignore the walls of differences are “disrespectful” of religion. I say poppycock. Why should we be respectful of religion and let it lie like a dusty rug? We should pick it up, bring it into the sunlight, and then beat it vigorously until all the dirt has fallen away and nothing but beauty remains. Why should we, the living, be content to breathe the dust of our ancestors?

Although Prothero’s thesis never grows legs to stand on here, the book may have some use for those interested in learning about other religions. He shows no bias toward one religion over another, though I advise nonreligious readers to steer well clear. He is bizarrely hostile toward humanists and atheists, dedicating an entire chapter to calling the ‘New Atheism’  a religion and its advocates hypocrites and plagiarists. This is stupidity, of course: religions are organized systems of beliefs, while atheism is a single belief -- and Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are no more plagiarists for making the same criticisms of religious assertions that Bertrand Russell did than is the second man in the crowd who dared to say the emperor had no clothes on.

I’m ultimately disappointed with this book: while it has its uses for comparative religion readers, there are assuredly superior books out there on that subject. I daresay even The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World Religion or some similar work would be better. I despise the spirit that sees the integrity  of religions as more 

important than the good we might do by overcoming our differences.


08 May 2011

Mother's Day

Today in the United States we celebrate the miracle of childbirth  and importance of motherhood by buying things. Back during the spring equinox, I watched a series of childbirth videos from various mammals. (It seemed appropriate.) It's certainly an interesting process, more dignified in some animals than in others. The elephants just fell out like large...droppings. I tried to find a video that made human childbirth look beautiful, but the only clips I could find which didn't leave me staring at the screen in horror were those which involved water birth. Out of curiosity, I wondered how chimpanzees managed things, and learned that this one at least tried giving birth while upside down.

07 May 2011

A Man in Full

As a kid I took the future for granted. I assumed that I would grow up, go to college, and find my place, or at least a place, inside society. I grew up in the late eighties and early nineties, though, when the economy was roaring and gas stayed below $1.40, sometimes even dipping below a dollar.  Even though my parents were thoroughly working class and didn't have much use for intellectual arts, the world of the intellect and high culture appealed to me. I had no interest in learning a trade, and certainly not my father's vocation of automobile repair. My future didn't involve work coveralls and a day of dirty labor: I would wear clean clothes, have soft, clean hands, and would work in an office somewhere. I thought this was the way things should be for everyone, except for people who wanted to work on cars for whatever unfathomable reason.

That has changed. Part of it, surely, is simply the aging process. That complacency belongs in the mind of a sheltered child, but as we grow older and learn from experience, we realize that the future does not drop into place for us. We have to apply to colleges, apply for jobs -- we have to be active about our futures. But I've also been influenced by my studies these past five years -- freethought, social criticism, Stoicism, anarchism -- and their combined effect in enriching my sense of humanism. I don't mean humanism in the most modern sense,  this excellent belief in ethics based on reason and compassion and emphasis on improving and enjoying the here and now. I mean it as in humanitas, as Cicero would have used it -- as the cultivation of the best in myself, in my humanity.  I wish to live gloriously -- not to be gloried, but to fulfill in part what I find so wonderful about human potential, to lose myself in the ecstasy of being human.

I can no longer be content playing a normal role in society, in being so dependent on the system. The universe is change, and I want to be quick-footed enough to respond to those changes. I want to be able to roll with the punches that life will surely send my way, to spring up time and again ready to engage. In recent years, and most particularly in the past few months, I have experienced a growing desire to be potent.  I want to be capable of doing things. I want to be able to cook, and cook well: I want to be able to repair an automobile, to use weapons, to fix and even create furniture, to effect household repairs, to take care of a garden and create both beauty and food.  I'm pretty good at being an intellectual, but I feel as though I have pursued only half my potential up until now. There are a great many people who have the skills I desire, but scorn intellectual liberties. We are both impoverished. I want to be a Renaissance human -- developed intellectually, physically, philosophically, morally -- a man in full.

The Discus Thrower, Myron.

I am enraptured by human potential, by the beauty of action. I want to be self-reliant not only because it's the wise thing to do, but because the idea of self-reliance resonates so strongly with my perception of what humanity is capable of. We're such versatile creatures. While we may admire a cheetah for its speed or a bear for its strength, our hands and brains make us beings of near-unlimited potential. I take pleasure when I explore that potential.

I have a recurring vision of a man in deep emotional distress who has lost everything, but he holds his two hands up before him and weeps. "With these two hands," he cries, "I made all which I lost -- and with these two hands, I shall make it again."  I do not know where this image comes from -- whether I read something like it in a book, or if I simply dreamed it up. But I want to be able to say that of my own two hands.

01 May 2011

May Day

May Day is an international holiday created to celebrate the accomplishments and trials of the men and women who have, throughout history,  made the modern world possible.  I celebrate this day not  because of my own personal politics, but because of my basic moral outlook. When we celebrate the worker, we celebrate the majority of humanity -- for most of the world belongs to the working class.

On this day, I invite you to consider that  most everything you can see and touch around you was created by the labor of another human being not unlike yourself. We live in a world created by one another, and virtually everything in our lives has been touched by the lives of countless men and women across the world. The food you eat, for instance, was planted, tended to, harvested, inspected, cleaned, packaged, transported, unloaded, and stocked in the store by people. We are constantly connected to one another.  This is worth being mindful of.

We should also be mindful of the widening gap etween those who create the wealth and those who horde it, between the working poor and the idle rich. It is more present now than at any time in history, for the strength of the few has been increased against the many upon whose backs they are perched.  The reasons for this are many, but the solution is the same.  We must stand together and work -- organize, protest, and defy.  We do not enjoy the civil rights and political liberties that we do because the powerful kings of the past thought it  was the right thing to do: we enjoy them because men and women of the past asserted those rights, demanded those liberties. They used the one weapon which can never be taken away -- strength of numbers -- to force reaction.  Human progress is the story of courage's advance and tradition's retreat.

While there are many appropriate songs I could share today, the song below has the most meaning for me. Back in 2007, as a self-described social democrat, I searched for 'democratic socialism' out of curiosity. I heard Billy Bragg singing the Internationale, and I listened to it again and again that weekend. It spoke to my humanist morals,  to my idealism,  and has taken on a powerful significance. Translated throughout the world into various languages, it may be the most sung song in history. 

Other suggestions:
1. "Power in a Union", Billy Bragg
2. "Ludlow Massacre", Woody Guthrie
3. "Solidarity Forever", Pete Seeger
4. "The Internationale", Alistar Hulett (traditional English lyrics)
     No savior from on high delivers
     No faith have we in prince or peer
     Our own right hands the chains must shiver
     Chains of hatred, greed, and fear.
5. "Internationale 2000", Maxx Klaxon (even more modern lyrics with more of an electronic than a folk sound.)
     Turn off their televised illusions
     Stand up and look them in the eyes
     Declare your mental liberation
     Shake off the dust, and claim the prize. 

Stand up, O victims of oppression
For the tyrants fear your might
Don't cling so heard to your possessions --
You have nothing if you have no Rights.

Let racist ignorance be ended,
For respect makes the Empires fall               
Freedom is merely privilege extended
Unless enjoyed by One and All 

So come brothers and sisters
For the struggle carries on
The Internationale unites the world  in song!
So comrades, come rally --
For this is the time and place
The International ideal 
Unites the human race.

Fall of the Berlin Wall, 9 November 1989

Let no one build walls to divide us,
Walls of hatred nor walls of stone
Come greet the Dawn and stand beside us
We'll live together, or we'll die alone


In our world poisoned by exploitation
Those who have taken, now they must give
And end the vanity of nations --
We've but Earth on which to live

So come brothers and sisters
For the struggle carries on
The Internationale unites the world  in song!
So comrades, come rally --
For this is the time and place
The International ideal 
Unites the human race.

"Tank Man". Tiananmen Square. 4 June 1989. 

 And so begins the final drama,
In the streets and in the fields
We stand unbowed before their armor
We defy! their guns and shields
When we fight, provoked by their aggression
Let us be inspired by like and love
For though they offer us concessions,
Change will not come from above!

So come brothers and sisters
For the struggle carries on
The Internationale unites the world  in song!
So comrades, come rally --
For this is the time and place
The International ideal 
Unites the human race.

29 April 2011

Freethought Friday #16: Intellectual Liberty

(Robert G. Ingersoll, 1830 - 1890)

From "Individuality": 

In my judgment, every human being should take a road of his own. Every mind should be true to itself -- should think, investigate and conclude for itself. This is a duty alike incumbent upon pauper and prince. Every soul should repel dictation and tyranny no matter from what source they come -- from earth or heaven from men or gods. Besides, every traveler upon this vast plain should give to every other traveler his best idea as to the road that should be taken. Each is entitled to the honest opinion of all. And there is but one way to get an honest opinion upon any subject whatever. The person giving the opinion must be free from fear. The merchant must not fear to lose his custom, the doctor his practice, nor the preacher his pulpit. There can he no advance without liberty. Suppression of honest inquiry is retrogression, and must end in intellectual night. The tendency of orthodox religion to-day is toward mental slavery and barbarism.

23 April 2011

Bernard Cornwell on Thinking for One's Self

Increasingly, one of my favorite authors is Bernard Cornwell, creator of several historical fiction series and a scattering of standalone novels. He boasts many strengths, among them irreverence toward politics and religion. I often search YouTube for interviews with authors I enjoy reading, and tonight I found this commencement address with message that will be appreciated by the kind of people whom I assume constitute this blog's audience.  A partial transcription follows: I omitted some asides and (regrettably) a somewhat humorous but lengthy aside in the interests of reducing the 'wall of text' as much as possible.

"I asked those same friends, and I said -- 'You all graduated, some of you a long time ago; what advice did you get at your graduation?' Eighty-seven percent could not remember. They had absolutely no idea, which suggests that my presence here is as of much use as an ashtray on a motorbike, but -- we have to push on, don't we?  [...] "But anyway, I thought to give you useful advice. Something really concrete, something that will keep you out of trouble -- something that will really stand you in  good stead. Never play poker with a man called 'Doc'.  It works! But my wife, who knows about these things, tell me I have got to be more useful than that. I've got to 'uplift you', she says, and so I shall try.  

It's quite possible that one of this graduating class will fail; you'll become a politician. And maybe what you have learned here will equip you to such an extent that you'll become President of the United States. I hope when that happens she will come back to Emerson College, but even if she does, or whatever you do, whatever success you have -- I wish you all success - -whatever dreams you have that come true, none of that is going to guarantee your happiness. Success doesn't guarantee happiness.  Selling thirty-seven million books doesn't guarantee happiness. It helps! -- but it doesn't guarantee it.

What will guarantee your happiness is that you think for yourselves, and become decent, honorable people.  And that's my second piece of advice, the one you're going to forget -- think for yourself.  Think for a moment what people have believed in the past. Astrology was reckoned to control our fates! -- some people still believe that. [...]  In the 12th century, they thought that celery was poisonous!  (I think that may well be true; I'm not sure...) We all know that Galileo -- what trouble he incurred when he suggested that the Earth went round the sun and not the other way around: did you also know that Murillo, the painter, was arrested by the Inquisition for daring to suggest that the Madonna had toes?  In the 19th century, at the beginning, it was believed that traveling greater than 30 miles per hour could be dangerous to your health; it could even kill you! ...I must say the Chatham police on Cape Cod still believe that.

Less than a hundred years ago, a textbook that was widely used in colleges throughout  the United States and for all I know, Europe, too...it was called Applied Eugenics.  It sold hundreds of thousands. It claimed that educating girls at college was tending towards 'race suicide'.  And why? I want you to listen to this, girls. 'Many a college girl of the finest innate qualities, who sincerely desires to enter matrimony, is unable to find a husband of her own class, simply because she has been rendered so cold and so unattractive, so overstuffed intellectually, and starved emotionally, that a typical man does not wish to spend the rest of his life in her company. " 

And if you think that eugenics was a crank science, that people didn't really believe in it, then consider that in 1927, the Supreme Court of the United States by a vote of eight to one, found it constitutional to sterilize people who were deemed mentally subnormal. In the name of eugenics. We have held beliefs -- I don't need to tell you of the more egregious ones -- but we have all been guilty. We have all held beliefs we assumed were true. Your job is to challenge everything, to think for yourself.  All those ideas and thousands more were preposterous, were reprehensible -- they were not held because our ancestors were evil. Women were not burned as witches because man is intrinsically bad, but because man wanted to do good. Those ideas were the accepted ideas of their times, and all I am trying to suggest to you is, think for yourself. Think for yourself. I don't care what your opinion is, but think it through. [...]

I'm not saying you shouldn't listen to advice -- you should listen to advice! [...] Listen to advice, but think for yourself. There are horrible dangers out there -- there are even....lawyers waiting for you.  Well done, all of you. Really, well done. You've been to one of the great colleges in one of the most blessed states in what is certainly the most blessed country in the world; you are well-launched. I leave you with this advice from somebody who knew how to give it:  "This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night  the day, that thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell. My blessing season this in thee!"* Thank you; good luck.


18 March 2011

Freethought Friday #12: The Measure of Wealth

(Robert G. Ingersoll, 1833 - 1890)

Some people tell me, "Your doctrine about loving, and wives, and all that, is splendid for the rich, but it won't do for the poor." I tell you to-night there is more love in the homes of the poor than in the palaces of the rich. The meanest hut with love in it is a palace fit for the gods, and a palace without love is a den only fit for wild beasts. That is my doctrine! You cannot be so poor that you cannot help somebody. Good nature is the cheapest commodity in the world; and love is the only thing that will pay ten per cent to borrower and lender both. Do not tell me that you have got to be rich! We have a false standard of greatness in the United States. We think here that a man must be great, that he must be notorious; that he must be extremely wealthy, or that his name must be upon the putrid lips of rumor. It is all a mistake. It is not necessary to be rich or to be great, or to be powerful, to be happy. The happy man is the successful man.

Happiness is the legal tender of the soul. Joy is wealth.