Wednesday, May 28, 2014

If I had a hammer....

Do ya feel lucky, punk? Well, do ya? 

The rampage of Elliot Rodger has turned everyone into an armchair sociologist or psychologist or just prompted lots of ponderous pontifications on the nature of misogyny in America today.

Meanwhile, 19 people were shot in New Orleans over the weekend, 4 of which were fatalities.  80 people died in gun violence across America the week before Elliot Rodger climbed into his BMW.  From 2006-2012, 900 people died in mass shootings.  In 2010 alone, 11, 078 people died in shooting incidents across America.

But none of those 11,000 shooters left 141 page suicide notes or posts on YouTube which could be analyzed by everyone from sociologists to teachers of gender studies and Africana studies to just plain old bloggers, nor does it allow us to wonder about yet another "subculture" on the Internet or speculate again why men just don't understand the problems they cause for women.  We do get to wonder why therapists can't stop mass shooters, but nobody speculates about why we can't stop 11,0000 shootings in one year.  We speculate about our "masculinity crisis", but still it's only a crisis when it involves mass shootings.  Drive by shootings, drug-related shootings, gang violence shootings, random violence shootings, accidental and stupid shootings; these don't cause us to even pay attention.

To the person with the hammer, absolutely everything looks like a nail.

So Elliot Rodger represents: what?  Adolescence?  Spoiled affluent children?  The mentally ill?  American manhood?  The failure of American masculinity?  The failure of our governments, from local to federal? The problem with not understanding the relationship of violence to mental illness?

How about he represents what we fear the most:  the violence that can reach the "safe" middle class.  Not the violence on the streets of New Orleans, but not on Bourbon Street; or the violence on the streets of Chicago, but not too near the better neighborhoods of Chicago.  No, the violence of 11,000 gun deaths in one year is invisible; the violence of 900 gun deaths in 6 years is what terrifies us.  I wonder how many die in weather related incidents each year:  not just tornadoes and hurricanes, but thunderstorms, blizzards, flash floods, fires sparked by lightning.  Probably more than 900 in six years, but we live with it; nature is dangerous, sometimes.

Violence against our kind, or class, people like us: that terrifies us; that brings out the speculation and the analysis and the hand-wringing and the finger-pointing  It's the problem of impossible standards of masculinity; it's the problem of men not recognizing the harassment women suffer; it's the problem of conservative Christians; it's the problem of "white male privilege."

And it's only a problem because we have a face and a name and 6 identifiable people dead in a place where people aren't supposed to be dead, not from violence.  If as many people die in a "gang-related shooting," it barely makes a ripple beyond the local news.

And then we are shocked when it reaches out and touches us; or people like us.  And when the shooter has the decency to post his thoughts on-line for us to read, we are almost comforted.

Reading is something we can do about it.

(and, yeah, there really is nothing we can do.)

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day 2014

I'm reposting this from a few years back, because it is a favorite of mine.

Perhaps it began as "Decoration Day." Probably it was a memorial for the dead, like Samhain or Dios de los muertos. Now it is to remember that "freedom is not free," even though it was not won by war for the Founding Fathers but simply one's birthright. The militarism of society is a problem for another day. Today, as we honor soldiers we should also honor the dead, whoever they are. Because of them, we lead the lives we lead.

The characters are two African American Marines in the bush in Vietnam.

He was silent for a moment. Then he said "Ever'one here think it easy for me. I be this good little church boy from Mississippi with my good little church-goin' Mammy, and since I be this stupid country nigger with the big faith, I don't have no troubles. Well, it just don't work that way." He paused. Jermain said nothing. "I see my friend Williams get ate by a tiger," Cortell continued. "I see my friend Broyer get his face ripped off by a mine. What do you think I do all night, sit around thankin' Sweet Jesus? Raise my palms to sweet heaven and cry hallelujah? You know what I do? You know what I do? I lose heart." Cortell's throat suddenly tightened, strangling his words. "I lose my heart." He took a deep breath, trying to regain his composure. He exhaled and went on quietly, back in control. "I sit there and I don't seen any hope. Hope gone." Cortell was seeing his dead friends. "Then, the sky turn gray again in the east, and you know what I do? I choose all over to keep believin'. All along I know Jesus could maybe be just some fairy tale, and I could be just this one big fool. I choose anyway." He turned away from his inward images and returned to the blackness of the world around him. "It ain't no easy thing."

--Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, by Karl Marlantes (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press 2010).

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
from offspring taken soon out of their mother's laps,
And here you are the mother's laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.--Walt Whitman


O Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon us.
Thou that sittest at the right hand of the Father, have mercy upon us.
Arise, O Christ, and help us,
And deliver us for thy Name's sake.


O Christ, when thou didst open thine eyes on this fair earth, the angels greeted thee as the Prince of Peace and besought us to be of good will one toward another; but thy triumph is delayed and we are weary of war.


O Christ, the very earth groans with pain as the feet of armed men march across her mangled form.


O Christ, may the Church, whom thou didst love into life, not fail thee in her witness for the things for which thou didst live and die.


O Christ, the people who are called by thy Name are separated from each other in thought and life; still our tumults, take away our vain imaginings, and grant to thy people at this time the courage to pro-claim the gospel of forgiveness, and faithfully to maintain the ministry of reconciliation.


O Christ, come to us in our sore need and save us; 0 God, plead thine own cause and give us help, for vain is the help of man.


O Christ of God, by thy birth in the stable, save us and help us;
By thy toil at the carpenter's bench, save us and help us;
By thy sinless life, save us and help us;
By thy cross and passion, save us and help us.


Then all shall join in the Lord's Prayer.

Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

Friday, May 23, 2014

A Valediction: Forbidding Meaning

This post at Salon made me think about what counter-intuitive things I'd say to a graduating class.  So I came up with this:

 Dear graduates:

The world doesn't give a wet snap for you.

You will have good jobs, with good bosses.  You will have crappy jobs with bosses you are convinced are psychopaths.  Both of these may not happen to you, but it will happen to the person next to you.  And that person next to you is more important than you might think.  I'll come back to that.

So you have nothing but great bosses and great jobs; or you may have nothing but crappy bosses and crappy jobs.   Who knows?  It's a crap shoot, and there's nothing you can do about crappy bosses except find another job.  Because sometimes there's nothing you can do about the job.  Life may hand you lemons, but that doesn't mean you'll always have the sugar for lemonade.

And when you flee a bad boss, you can only hope the new boss isn't worse than the last one.

Because the fact is, without a job, you are on the street panhandling for change.  Not much you can do in this world without a job.

So get a job.  "Follow your bliss" later.  Feed, cloth, and shelter yourself first.  You'll want to anyway, but I thought I'd mention it.

Success is too easily counted in material terms:  money, possessions.  You can lose all of that.  You can be rich tomorrow, broke the day after.  As the old saying has it, "I've been rich and poor.  Rich is better."  But it's not secure.

Nothing is.

Those of you who become rich, will not do it because of your own efforts.  Wealth is a product of the system, and you were on the receiving end of the system.  Never forget that wealth is not a state of nature.  Nobody is rich on a desert island.  Wealth is a product of a system, and it is possible because others are poor.  Your wealth carries an enormous moral burden.  Think about that as you try to accumulate wealth.  You owe it to the people who make your wealth possible.  They generate it, you accumulate it.

That's how wealth works.  And that's why it's insecure.  All you can do is accumulate it.  And that which is gathered by you, can be gathered by someone else.

So it is better if you live for others, rather than for wealth.  Your spouse.  Your children.  Your friends. Ah, you say, I'll do that; after I've accumulated wealth; after I've accumulated security.

But what does it gain you to have the whole world, and lose your soul in the process?  If your first goal is to acquire, that will be the only true goal you ever have.  If your first goal is to live for others, you will have a life others will remember.

Nobody remembers fondly how rich the rich guy was.

So you're going to have to work, and "success" is going to be measured by you.  The world will measure your success, too; and probably find you wanting.  All success is chasing after a goal that is constantly receding in front of you; it's the carrot on the stick held out in front of your face.

Grow your own carrots.

You went to school to learn, but what you learned was data; information.  Something that would get you a job.  What you should have learned, what you may have learned but you don't yet know it, is wisdom.  Wisdom is not experience.  Experience is crabbed and personal and often bitter.  Experience will not make you wise.   Wisdom is insight.  Wisdom is understanding.  Pursue wisdom. Like love, you will wonder that it is.

Like love, you will know it when you experience it.  Like love, it will make life worthwhile.

So don't follow your bliss.  Pursue wisdom.  You can't follow it, it won't lead.  You can't find it in yourself, you have to get out of yourself in order to even stumble over it.  Wisdom is found in living.  It is found in art, and science; but wisdom has its own telos, its own goals.

You want to be successful?  You've graduated college, you already know how to achieve a goal.  But life is not about chasing a goal; life is about staying alive, and finding a reason to stay alive.

Pursue wisdom; not your bliss, not your happiness:  wisdom.  Get out of yourself, because wisdom isn't there.  Live for others, because life is there, not in living for yourself.

Don't chase your dreams or ambitions, or even butterflies.  Live the life you haven’t lived, by living for the people you don’t know: the ones whose work made this college possible, made the wealth of this system possible, made your life possible. Be least of all and servant of all.

And if that’s too hard, at least think about what one other person needs, instead of what you need.  Think hard, think beneath the surface.  Don't stop with food, shelter, clothing.  Think about what they truly need.

Start there, and see what happens.

It may be the best thing you ever did.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

When Will They Ever Learn?

Karen Armstrong:
“Before the Scopes ‘monkey’ trial—when the secular press ridiculed the fundamentalists and said they had no place in the modern agenda—fundamentalist Christians had been literal in their interpretation of scripture but creation science was the preserve of a few eccentrics. After the Scopes trial, they became militantly literal and creation science became the flagship of their movement. Before the Scopes trial, fundamentalists had often been on the left of the political spectrum and had been willing to work alongside socialists and liberal Christians in the new slums of the industrializing North American cities. After the Scopes trial, they swung to the far right, where they remained. They felt humiliated by the media attack. It was very nasty. There was a sense of loss of prestige, and, above all, a sense of fear.”
The "monkey trial" was actually started by the businessmen of Dayton, because Dayton was starting to look like present-day Detroit:

In the hope of reversing three decaeds of declining population, Dayton's town fathers saw in the ACLU's search for a biology teacher to test the legality of the Tennessee law a golden opportunity to put Dayton back on the map. That its high school biology teacher was ill and incapacitated posed no problem; the football coach and general science teacher, John Scopes (who had been drafted to complete the biology course) would do. In the actual trial, Scopes testified that as substitute teacher in the second half of the course he had learned more biology from his students than they had learned from him, for at least they had had six weeks of instruction from someone who knew something about the subject.

The town fathers' strategy exceeded their wildest hopes. Over two hundred reporters alone poured into Dayton, and the trial turned out to be one of the first in America to recieve international coverage.
What it actually did was fire up the fundamentalists and the creationists, who are with us to this good day.


I wish I could find so much as the reference to the "terrorist expert" I heard interviewed on BBC World Service probably a decade gone now. He said Al Qaeda was a minor terrorist organization with no real clout or reputation until the United States and then much of Europe decided they represented an "existential threat" (and why do we use that term?) to Western civilization.  I do know that sometime after we decided that, Al Qaeda became a franchise, with branches everywhere, and Osama bin Laden stopped living in a cave connected to a dialysis machine (what was THAT about, too?) and was finally killed in a compound an Abattabad.

And we're still chasing down segments of Al Qaeda; and it's so well known when it denounces Boko Haram, you know you've been denounced.


The third one was today:  on Fresh Air Terry Gross interviewed Daniel Schulman on the Koch Brothers and how they came to run the country (well, not really, but to hear most people on the intertoobs tell it, they are the cabal that runs the world).  Sadly, it doesn't show up in the highlights of the interview, but Mr. Schulman pointed out that the Charles Koch Foundation became the Cato Institute in 1977.  I've heard of Cato, but it's pretty much fallen of the radar in the past decade or so.  However, the Koch brothers were promoting their ideologies long after CKF became Cato.  It's just that nobody much cared.  They were a fringe group, their seminars and other meetings dull affairs attended only by ideologues like themselves.

And then the Koch brothers became the target of animosity.  They began to be blamed for all the things that others in politics disliked about their ideas.  And suddenly the Koch brothers were popular, and their previously dull and sleepy seminars became SRO affairs.  They kept peddling the same snake oil, but now, thanks to being targeted as "the problem," they were taken up as the solution!


Those who fight dragons too long not only become dragons themselves, they create dragons so they can have something to fight.  I was just watching a first season episode of "The X-Files," the one that introduces "The Lone Gunman."  One of their theories is that the then ruler of Russia was put in place by the CIA, because, with the Cold War over, the CIA needs somebody to oppose.  It's a silly notion; but it has a psychological truth to it.

If you need an enemy badly enough, you create one.

And then what?


Because the people who deserve help are the only people we should help....

Josh Marshall won't (yet) call it racism, because none dare call it racism if it doesn't involve skinheads or rural Southerners:

And in a surprising twist, the bill language specifies that only rural areas are to benefit in the future from funding requested by the administration this year to continue a modest summer demonstration program to help children from low-income households — both urban and rural — during those months when school meals are not available.

Since 2010, the program has operated from an initial appropriation of $85 million, and the goal has been to test alternative approaches to distribute aid when schools are not in session. The White House asked for an additional $30 million to continue the effort, but the House bill provides $27 million for what’s described as an entirely new pilot program focused on rural areas only.

Democrats were surprised to see urban children were excluded. And the GOP had some trouble explaining the history itself. But a spokeswoman confirmed that the intent of the bill is a pilot project in “rural areas” only.

There seems to be a degree of understatement going on here, particularly in the final paragraph. What gives?
Three guesses what gives, and the first two don't count.  Hint:  "everybody knows" there are no white children in urban areas, no black children in rural areas.

Or at least not enough in either to really matter.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

"What are we doing here?"

Compare this, about hashtag activism such as "#bringbackourgirls:

Defenders of campaigns like these often say that they can be gateways toward greater understanding of complex global issues. Viewers first get hooked on the moral outrage, then learn more about the underlying conditions that produced the crisis, becoming better-informed global citizens.

This paper suggests that unfortunately the opposite is true. Viewers get interested when they hear about evil monsters like the LRA or Boko Haram that just need to be stopped. When they learn more about the issue and find out that, lo and behold, the world is a very complicated place, that killing the monster won’t be so easy and that there are larger issues in play beyond the monster itself, they lose interest. 
With this:

Willow Creek Community Church is another "mega church that has been much studied by students of ecclesiology. G.A. Pritchard, a Ph.D. candidate sympathetic to the aims of Willow Creek's theology, studied it's "seeker services," which were designed to draw in the "unchurched" and convert them to Christians. The process was supposed to be a four-step model that drew the unchurched into a full communion among the community of believers. (An explanation of the process is available in Bill Hybel's book, Rediscovering Church.) The only problem with it was, it didn't work.
Pritchard's study concluded that "unchurched" members of Willow Creek were certainly drawn to the "contemporary worship, which was an attractice TV variety show format, with up-tempo songs led by a "praise leader," backed by a rock band, and demanding little more than listening skills from the "congregation." The idea was this "seeker service" would be as familiar as possible (and so it was consciously modeled on a TV talk show, with the "preacher" as the "host"), and by constant exposure to a "moral" message embedded in an entertaining package, the unchurched would deepen their commitment to God by furthering their commitment to the church, and become active and engaged church members. Except few did; most, predictably, took the path of least resistance. They came for the cake and coffee, the candy, so to speak, and left. They never asked for more.

And tell me if I'm wrong in seeing a whole lot of similarity there.

The Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging is still the church nobody really wants to join.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Somebody on the internet is wrong!

So, I've learned from hanging around at Salon that if you want to generate a lot of comments, put up an article about religion.  Double points if you put one up about the new "Cosmos" show on Fox, and find someone somewhere on the intertoobs who is outraged about last week's episode and what it said about Christianity.

Not religion, mind you; just Christianity.  And it's always last week's show:

i feel like every week you write these stories about 'fundamentalist christians freakout about cosmos' and then quote the same website. its always 'answers in genesis' and not ANY other examples of this supposed freakout. i'm not saying it doesn't exist it just seems like a cheap and stupid article at this point that basically reads: 'this one website doesn't like cosmos' while kind of ignoring the fact that cosmos goes out of its way to address religion in its show.

they never have to say, 'oh and hey by the way if you think religion can explain this you're wrong.' but they do. often. they never have to mention that a particular scientist was religious, but they do. there was absolutely no reason this week to point out that the epic flood story had existed for centuries before the bible, but it did. they kind of troll the christians a bit. why?

anyway, i look forward to your next article: 'can you believe a relatively small organization thats entire existence is based upon denying science doesn't like that one science show that basically baits them every week?! fundamentalists are so stupid, amiright?!?"
What always follows is best summed up in this comment:

Following the link "More Dan Arel" has revealed that so far he has gotten a whole month repackaging the same story over and over, just switching out which creationist is offended this week, to the exclusion of anything else.  I mean, I like praising Tyson and laughing at creationists as much as the next pro-science guy, but none of these mini-stories provide much analysis of why creationists think like they do, or why at this historical moment science needs to be aggressively defended and championed.  I expect journalism to be more than, "Hey look at that stupid person!  *snicker*"

Or there's this one:

It is hard to overlook how pathetic Salon's obsession with Cosmos and creationists is becoming. Not content to enjoy the Cosmos for what it is, a wonderful journey through history and science, readers here must instead view the entire affair through the lens of anti-creationist hatred. This childish inability to be the bigger person and move with one's life is a case study in how moronic this 'journalistic' outlet is causing its readers to become.

Creationists are like the kid in school who doesn't quite know hot to socialize yet. His cloths are goofy, he is behind the rest of the class academically, and is all in all a pretty awkward entity. And the response of a majority of people here seems to be an immediate leap into teasing, mocking and generally acting like a bunch of asses. Such big moral people indeed. not content to talk down to these creationists, the rabble here instead prefers to stoop to their level. No doubt this behavior will be justified by pointing to how icky and backwards creationists are, as if this does anything to excuse their own poor behavior.

Creationists are losing their mind... but the Salonista are losing their dignity. The former group doesn't know any better... what's the excuse of the second group?

Side note, since I am guessing most commenters here did not actually watch the episode last night... The most jabby part wasn't anything to do with evolution.. it was when Neil Tyson directly claimed that The Bible lifted a large portion of the book from Gilgamesh. I would imagine more Christians objected to that than the frank explanation of evolution. 
Full disclosure:  I'm not watching "Cosmos," and I don't really care what it presents; it's the reactions that amuse me.  I got into an argument on that thread with a comment that Christians be crazee because the Rev. Thomas Prince accused Ben Franklin of doing the devil's work in 1755 by inventing the lightning rod and so causing an earthquake in Boston that year.

Problem was, this account was based on an NYT op-ed*, and when I googled Franklin and Prince, I learned that the good Rev.'s theory connecting earthquakes and lightning was widely held in the mid-18th century (though not necessarily by Franklin). Prince was not railing against Franklin; he was voicing a scientific concern.  So he's hardly an example of crazy anti-scientific Christianity (especially in the 18th century, when Cotton Mather came close to understanding the concept of a smallpox vaccine.  Mather is also not the caricatured anti-science figure we presume him to be; he was an influence personally on Ben Franklin, who admired Mather.)  In the 18th century Puritans prided themselves on their knowledge and their empiricism.  No matter, my correspondent then pointed out other individuals with crazy religious (although not scientific) notions, like the Bishop who declared that Katrina was punishment for prostitution in New Orleans.

Oh, and all reasoning began with the Enlightenment.  I think history started then, too.

I pointed out he kept bringing up individuals as being representative of whole institutions if not whole groups of people.  I didn't point out that if you do that on the basis of race, it's racism' and that either way, it's wholly irrational.  But maybe I should have.

Reasoning and rationality on the internets is in short supply.  True, if you review all 600+ comments at Salon (as of the time I write, and that's for an article that's been up for about 12 hours), you'll find as many in agreement with the two I quoted as are outraged that somebody somewhere shares the same planet with them.  It brings me back to Sophocle's hymn to reason from "Antigone":

Man the master, ingenious past all measure
past all dreams, the skills within his grasp--
he forges on, now to destruction
now again to greatness. When he weaves in
the laws of the land, and the justice of the gods
that binds his oaths together
he and his city rise high--
but the city casts out
that man who weds himself to inhumanity
thanks to reckless daring. Never share my hearth
never think my thoughts, whoever does
such things.
There is an incompleteness in the reasoning of the critics not present for Sophocles.  He wants to weave together the laws of the land and the justice of the gods; but the critics just want to the law to serve them (they insist conservative Christians are absolutely in charge) and to see others as the ones who wed themselves to inhumanity:  "Never share my hearth/never think my thoughts, whoever does/such things."  And since the boundaries of human contact are now boundless, and since they convince themselves all who are not with them are against them, and that those against them are in control (else how can they even speak?), well....'round and 'round it goes.

Where it stops, nobody knows.  But it does decay.  I later got into an argument on that thread with someone who assured me Medieval Europe read the scriptures literally (few people could read, of course, besides monks and priests). I  said that was wrong because the medieval mind was dominated by Platonism.  I was told I didn't know what I was talking about.

This is how enlightened some people are now.  I think it is all making us stupider.


*Curious fellow, Scott M. Liell.  I Googled his name and the name of a book the NYT said was "forthcoming" in 2005; I found a book, by Steven Waldman with that title.  A Google search of "Scott Liell Founding Faith"  returns only this NYT op-ed, which is about as historically accurate as a fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis 1.  So I don't know what else to tell ya, except the standards for the NYT op-ed page are shockingly low.  But you probably already knew that.

"You have to be taught..."

"Wishes come true...not free."

This article at Slate is just one example of many I've come across lately on the subject of race in America.

That it remains our "hidden wound."

1.3K comments at Slate, and too many of them very critical of the idea that racism won't go away because we can all be "colorblind."  This comment is typical:

"No, racism is better understood as white supremacy—anything that furthers a broad hierarchy of racist inequity, where whites possess the greatest share of power, respect, and resources, and blacks the least."

Bouie has proposed a way to keep racial animosity alive forever:  Redefine racism so that any difference in outcomes is automatically attributed to unfairness rather than to merit.

I know a lot of whites who lack power, respect, and resources.  Should they blame Jews?  
I've heard that line of argument before; when I was a child, in the days before and immediately after the Civil Rights Act.  Contrary to popular belief, Brown v.  Board didn't solve segregation problems, and the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act didn't end racism in America.  And the notion that racism is now gone because, well, because millenials came along, is equally wrong.

Bouie's definition of racism there is a good working definition:  it goes to the question of power, and from power flows respect and access to resources.  Anyone defending racism by claiming we all just need to "get along" and, like Stephen Colbert, not see color, is re-establishing racism, not uprooting it.

The fundamental problem here is, we have no concept of culture.  We think of culture as perhaps a very narrow thing, something limited to rural areas where people don't get "new ideas" and so don't know we've all "moved on."  But culture has a persistence that is poorly understood and widely accepted.

Texas, for example, has become the second most populous state in the country.  In the 80's there were complaints about "non-native" Texans moving down here.  I still have a coffee mug emblazoned with the popular logo "Native Texan" as if we were an endangered species, or more Texan than thou.  That population growth never abated, and yet politically and culturally, Texas was little changed.

Texas has been a one-part state since Reconstruction.  Like the rest of the American South, we switched that party from the Democrats to the GOP, largely through the actions of LBJ to make the world more equitable.  Since that time the number of "native Texans" has been washed away by "immigrants."  But here's the question:  why didn't Texas become more liberal?

Eventually the cities did.  Dallas was the point of origin for most of the TV evangelists in the '70's and '80's.  Now the sheriff of Dallas County is (or was, I haven't checked on whether she still holds the office) is a lesbian.  Houston' mayor is a lesbian, too; so far as I know the only gay person to hold that office in a major metropolitan area (odd we don't get more credit for that).  All the major metro areas of Texas (D/FW, Houston, San Antonio, Austin) went for Obama, twice.  But it wasn't enough to outweigh the rural areas, the areas that still send Ted Cruz and Louie Gohmert to Congress, and who will probably replace Rick Perry with Greg Abbott (sorry, but I don't think Wendy Davis has a snowball's chance in hell).  Yes, the urban areas of Texas have gained population; but so have the rural areas.  Small towns that were once moribund and on their way to being ghost towns are now alive with antique stores and "craft" shops and music and plant (flowers, fruits, peppers) festivals.  People are actually moving to those places and making a living and altering, slightly, the local culture.

Ever, ever so slightly.

But the basic culture of the places remains; both in attitudes toward non-whites (Texas is due to go minority/majority any day now, and if you don't think that's freaking people out, you aren't paying attention) and in politics, which if anything has become more backwards and anti-progressive since the '70s' (the high-water mark of liberalism in Texas politics).  So, with all these non-natives moving in who didn't grow up on the Texas mystique of being an independent republic and our Southern heritage (in East Texas; Central Texas is more heavily German; West Texas is ranchers and oil; and then there's South Texas, the Valley, the Trans-Pecos, North Texas, the Panhandle....) adapt to what is fundamentally Texas in a heartbeat.

Or at least they don't change it much.  Because change could require attention, and attention is hard!  So much easier to pretend things are just fine and all those problems that existed before we got here (I'm looking at you, Millenials!) are unimportant, so quit talking about 'em and they'll go away!

And here's where the Baby Boomers are the "Greatest Generation."

The civil rights movement was not started by Boomers, because they were, at best, only 10 years old or so at the time.  But it was Boomers who took up the challenge to change the culture they were handed; who stood with the marchers as the Boomers got old enough to march themselves.  It was the Boomers who forced the fundamental changes, not in law but in society, necessary to make racism no longer the default setting of social order.

And the Boomers did this because they recognized the culture they had been born into was a continuum, and it was up to them to fix it.

Millenials, by simply saying "Hey, that hard work is done!", are abdicating their responsibility.   Do I exaggerate?

Wow, Jamelle.  You are stuck in the 1960s.  Only whites can be racist?  Racism is synonymous with white supremacy?  I'm sure you mean well, but get with the program.  These views are no longer describe reality.  I know, it can be jarring to let go of the old animosity--just ask gay people because they are part of an active struggle.  But let go you must.

Millenials feel as they do because the civil rights movement was their grandparent's issue.  It was, to be sure, a noble and valiant struggle, and the right side won.  It's over now.  It has been for a long time.  Millenials know this.

Affirmative action now basically means discriminating against poor Asians for the benefit of middle and upper class blacks.  It's not what anybody anticipated and Millenials, rightly and overwhelmingly, would prefer to see this and other race-conscious policies fade into history where they belong. 
See?  The only racism is the racism you see!  All those stories about Driving While Black or about being followed around a store if you are black, or even the examples of people being turned down for housing because they are black; all gone!  George Zimmerman?  Hey, that's a one off!  Except for all the other cases of shooting at black kids, and the guy who only got convicted because he fired at the car as it drove away.  Before that?  Well, they were black kids, they coulda had a gun!

But again, a one off.  Why, that guy was so old he was probably a Gen X'er.  Millenials rule!

Or something.

The song from "South Pacific" was right; you do have to be taught to hate.  The problem is, that teaching is subtler and less obvious than we imagine.  The French in Louisiana imagined, once upon a time, that if they allowed interracial marriage (which would have included Native Americans as well as Africans with Europeans), that racial distinctions would disappear.  Instead, we got the laws about "racial purity." and the "one-drop" rule, and distinctions of "mulattoes" and "quadroons" and "octaroons," words with as much legal power and distinction behind them as "imbecile" and "moron" once had (when Holmes wrote that "Three generations of imbeciles is enough!," he was using a legally defined term, not a general opprobrium).  We cannot ignore our way out of this problem, or pretend that Stephen Colbert is our patron saint for a new millennia.

We cannot pretend the hard work is done; or that paying attention to this problem only makes it worse (that's the same argument made about sex ed:  if we don't talk about it, teenagers won't know what it is).  The hard work of eliminating racism hasn't been done; it's only just gotten started.

400 years of evil cannot be undone in only 40.

"My death; is it possible?"

So apparently there was a long and detailed discussion of death (it seems the proposition for the debate was "Death is not final"), and nobody asked the obvious question:  "What is death?"

The subject raises, in part, a linguistic question:  in English we never say someone is "death" unless we mean a fictional personification of the reality of mortality (I have to be careful here not to use "death" to define "death").  We can say someone is dead; but not that they are death.  It wouldn't mean the same thing.

So, the dichotomy:  someone is alive, someone is dead.  The change in state from one to the other is death; or, more precisely, the moment of death.  But once that moment is gone, death is no more, and you are simply dead.

So what is death?  The moment of the cessation of life.  And why does that happen?  Why does that transition occur?  At best, all we can say is the organism is no longer capable of sustaining life.  Why?  Well, at bottom, that's all we can say.  Causes, of course, vary; from trauma to "old age" (rapidly disappearing as the diagnosis of choice for the deceased), but the same fundamental applies:  the organism becomes incapable of sustaining life.

Why?  What is life?  Where does it come from?

In the early 20th century, seeking to replace "soul" that comes from God and animates the body, the concept was "élan vital."  Virginia Woolf wrote a fascinating essay on the topic while observing "The Death of the Moth."  Interestingly, she had to write about death in order to write about life.  We often run up against these boundaries.  We seem to best know a thing by running it up against its limits; by observing it against what it is not.  And dead is not alive.

We seem to be going in circles here.

Alive is animate; dead is inanimate.  And still there is the moment, the instant, of death.  That is the linchpin of the discussion, the action of decoupling where "alive" becomes "dead," and the question is:  does the moment of death mark a finality, or merely a transition from animate flesh to permanent existence?

One objection that is not an objection was raised in the debate:

When Christians have near-death experiences, they often say they've met Jesus. When Hindus have near-death experiences, they meet Hindu deities. There was a little girl who had a near-death experience, and she met a portly man wearing a red cap. She met Santa Claus.

You are expecting people to report experiences in terms they don't have; in images they've never seen?  You were expecting a highly subjective experience to be completely objective, a neutral observation of an absolute thing?  The fact that Christians in NDE's have claimed to meet Jesus is neither proof they actually did, nor proof that they had no experience beyond firing synapses.  It is proof they had an experience.

What kind of experience, is the question.  The fact that it is one they report in culturally related terms is not determinative of the validity of the experience.  But then, denying reports of NDE's is also to understand these reports in cultural terms.

In the parable of Lazarus, Abraham tells the rich man that even if Lazarus were to return from the dead, the brothers of the rich man would not heed the teachings of the prophets and avoid the damned man's fate.  Likewise, if someone were to return from the dead, others would deny the reports of the resurrection, perhaps even deny the existence of the person claimed to have been resurrected, and if they were an eyewitness to the event, if they saw the dead walk, they would argue that the person was never dead.

There is always a way to look at these things that denies whatever claim is made for them.  The argument that "the evidence for such things must be 'amazingly good' " is a disingenuous one, since it starts from a principle of proof where it will never accept as "proof" any evidence with contradicts what is already accepted as true.  And this, of course, is the "objective" stance that considers only "facts."

"Facts" being a carefully defined terms whose definition is never subject to serious examination.

That observation doesn't validate extraordinary claims (who among us knows someone who has risen from the dead?), but it does challenge the easy assumption that only "extraordinary proof" can support "extraordinary claims."  Yes, it is true that to accept some claims it may seem you have "to dismiss the enormous successes of physics, chemistry, biology and neuroscience."  But what if you merely have to question the reach of those successes; or rather, question the interpretation of those successes?

Surely science can do that.  Because "extraordinary proof" is already, by definition, impossible.  If it is extra-ordinary, it will be explained in "ordinary" terms; at which point a near-death experience means you met Jesus, or even Santa Claus.  And that's so ordinary it can't be true; can it?

So what is "death"?  Cessation of life function, moment of?  If so, what does that mean?  What is life function, what, indeed, is consciousness?  This doesn't answer that question:

we don’t know exactly how the brain generates consciousness…not knowing the mechanism is not the same thing as saying it’s not possible…we’re certainly not all the way there in understanding exactly what it is…it’s not a black and white thing.
But if we're going to say that the brain "generates consciousness," perhaps we first need a sound understanding of what consciousness is.  And if we're going to identify life after death, perhaps we should examine what death is, and what life after it involves.

John Donne didn't think it involved a bright light and a meeting with Santa Claus:  "One short sleep past, we wake eternally," he wrote in his most famous Holy Sonnet.  For Donne, the resurrection came at a point in time, not at a point in an individual life.  Then again, when you are dealing in terms of eternity (which Donne certainly was, and which any discussion of life after death certainly presumes; because the very concept of immortality is that life is permanent, not death; that life, like eternity, is without end) it could be that "short sleep" is subjectively short indeed.  If you sleep without dreams, it can be as if there was no time between the last waking moment and the next.

Or perhaps it is just a matter of enculturation.  People suffering severe trauma have been known to recite the Pater Noster without conscious volition.  That is surely a matter of enculturation.  But does that mean the words are irrelevant, are merely phonemes?  It doesn't mean the words have metaphysical power; but it doesn't seem they are wholly irrelevant, either.

No more than the words we choose to discuss whether or not death is final.  But the word itself:  "Death."

What does that mean?  If "death" means "cessation of life functions observable in an organism," then yes, death is final.  We've yet to see a dead organism regain life activities (be animate again).  But that cannot be the meaning of the word in the statement "Death is not final," unless by that formulation you also mean "A square is circular."  It doesn't get any better if you say "Death is the cessation of existence," because now you have to explain what you mean by "existence".

Because if you are going to say that extraordinary evidence is necessary to prove there is an existence after the cessation of life functions in an organism, you are first going to have to define what you mean by "existence."  And before that, I suspect you'll have to explain what you mean by "consciousness."  Explaining that it is what is "generated" by the brain is no explanation at all.

All of which is not to say the claims of Platonism and Christianity are established by these gaps in scientific terminology; but rather, that the participants in this debate were speaking in two different language games, and so talking past each other.  And the only way to establish the superiority of one language game over the other, ultimately, is to say the one you accept is right because you accept it.  While the proponents of immortality or just the persistence of existence have many claims to substantiate, the "science" side has many claims to establish, too:  including solid definitions of "existence" and "consciousness."

And maybe even a better definition of "death."

If we're going to play these language games, we all need to agree on what the ground rules are.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my exploration of other cultures

So, this happened:

No sympathy for the devil, indeed: Harvard and Boston-area Catholics are in an uproar over an independent student group's plans to hold a Satanist ceremony Monday evening as part of an ongoing series of events exploring other cultures.
The story prompted two different articles at Religion Dispatches; but the best response I've read so far was at Salon.  Where, oddly enough, one commenter told me that the Eucharist is just an anti-Seder ritual, so the level of discourse on this matter, like most things on the internet, would have to crawl up to get over my big toe.

I have to say I'm not sure what's "cultural" about something designed solely to mock a religious ritual of a major church.  It's "cultural" in the sense that mocking Jews would be cultural, I guess; or in the way a "minstrel show" would be cultural.

But I can't see Harvard getting criticized for refusing to host either of those, even if they tried to put it in an educational context.

I understand the group that was to put on this "reenactment" saw it as a personal statement of intellectual independence:

“To us, the Black Mass is an amalgamation that developed through time based on witch-hunting fears and later adopted by some as a declaration of personal Independence against what they felt to be the stifling authority of the church,” Satanic Temple head Lucien Greaves told CNS news.

But this "developed through time" matter is a bit rich.  The basis for the "black Mass," according to Joseph Laycock, was a 19th century French novel.  I'm not sure how that makes the matter an "event exploring other cultures," unless that culture is 19th century French atheist novelists, and given the 2000 year history of the Roman church, I don't think 100 years is much of a development through time.

It's a tempest in a teapot, of course; but it's also rather telling that the controversy is being treated as one that shouldn't be.  I know there was serious concern about the reenactment using a consecrated Host, or even using bread at all.  But if the "minstrel show" was reenacted in everything but blackface, would that make it acceptable, too?

UPDATE:  Having said my piece, I find this perspective, which I think is a valid one and worthy of consideration.  My practical response might be that this was not the occasion for dialogue, even if it should have been; and that such dialogue is notoriously difficult to engage on the terms described in the essay.

On the other hand, my more practical response would be: if it was easy, it would have been done by now.  And if not now, when?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Where's my fork?

Have you seen my fork?

Just noting in passing, but I think Glenn Greenwald is becoming more irrelevant by the day.

I'm quite sure Salon had two Greenwald related posts up only a few days ago.  One is still available if you search for it, but it didn't slide from the front page over to "Most Read" status; I found it through Google.  The other was an excerpt from his book.  Maybe they deleted that one because Huffington Post has it now; maybe it was never there, and my memory is bad (I didn't bother to read it, but I remember it).

In either case, Greenwald doesn't seem to be trending, even at his old internet stomping grounds.  Which is curious, because Greenwald seems more determined than ever to make the NSA revelations of Edward Snowden all about Greenwald.

He promised, in the Salon interview, to reveal yet more blockbusters.  I thought I'd read somewhere these would be in his book (which was embargoed even for reviewers until it was released), but apparently no blockbusters were hidden in those pages.  In the interview he says the news will be ready for the public by maybe June of this year.  Of course, he's been promising major revelations and retribution against the British and American governments since August of last year, so I guess we're just supposed to believe him and keep waiting with bated breath; or on tenterhooks, or something.

The anticipation is killing me.

But if the excerpt of his new book from Huffington Post is any indication, Greenwald still thinks this story is all about Greenwald.  (I ventured that opinion at Salon, and was denounced as a troll by Greenwaldian acolytes.  I thought it was kinda funny nobody would engage the substance of what I said.  No one rebutted me, they just complained that I'd raised the issue.)  He doesn't seem to have much to say about what the NSA has been doing (no surprise, since so much of what he's said has been wrong), but a great deal to say about what it's like to be Glenn Greenwald.  The more things change, the more they remain the same.

I thought the journalist wasn't supposed to be the point; the story was.  Even Edward Snowden asked Putin about surveillance and espionage.  Greenwald just gives interviews about what it's like to be Greenwald, and to make sure everybody looks forward to what Greenwald says next, or what Glenn Greenwald thinks about surveillance and national security.  I mean, what, exactly, did he tell Stephen Colbert about the NSA that was new, interesting, or even insightful, except that, once again, the best is yet to come?

Which seems to be pretty much to be the best way to be sure everybody is paying attention to Glenn Greenwald, because he's not through trying to occupy center stage just yet.

Just as a quick example, because Greenwald is on "Fresh Air" as I type:  he just said he has in his possession "tens of thousands" of documents (the number has never been specific) which governments around the world want to get hold of.  Again, the story is about brave Glenn Greenwald and nefarious governments with shadowy, threatening powers.  What it isn't about, over a year later, is what's in those documents.  Greenwald can't, or won't, tell us.  What he will tell us is that he's very important because he has them.

As long as he can do that, he's a "journalist."  Apparently.  Odd definition, if you ask me.

Stand and Deliver!

I was watching this film version of Tolstoy's "Resurrection" last night and wondering what it had to do with this:

"For religion rests on beliefs that are assumed to be true, and if you erode those beliefs you erode religion—and with it many of its inimical effects."

And the answer was:  Absolutely nothing.

Nekhludoff abandons his privilege, his land, his social status, and his freedom, to join Katusha in Siberia in order, he says, to right the wrongs he has done as an individual, and as a member of a system that has oppressed people (the trigger for this revelation is the trial of Katusha, and a verdict which cannot be reversed because no one in power wants to admit error,  or compassion for the poor).  Part of the movie is stunning for its liberalism; apparently in 1934 Nekhludoff can be portrayed on-screen as a socialist (he actually accepts the label) for his ideals, and still be the hero (Bruce Wayne may leave stately Wayne Manor as an orphanage in "The Dark Knight Rises," and act on behalf of the people of Gotham City, but no one ever accuses him of being a socialist).

But he has a religious epiphany which leads him to change his life as radically as Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus (and without any hint of epilepsy!).  What Nekhludoff "assumes to be true" is that his life must be lived in accordance with justice for all and equality of all.  The only inimical effect of that would be the end of the prison system such as exile to Siberia, and the end of the system of privilege which various characters representing the social order, up to and including the Czar, present as one of indifference to the serfs to, in the person of the Czar, one in which the privilege of the rich and powerful (we'd say the 1% today) must be preserved at all cost, lest it be lost.

A more naked defense of gated communities and the privilege of wealth and social status has never, I think, been voiced by a character in a film.  Even Gordon Gecko was more oblique.  And I can't imagine it being written into a script again, even if someone had the nerve to "reboot" Tolstoy's story for film.

Which "inimical effects" cannot be attributed to religion.  Oh, maybe to the "Gospel of Wealth," but then that's no more religion than the measure of skull capacity or "IQ" is science.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Dusting off my knees

Science is a philosophy.

That, of course, is not all that it is; it is in many ways much less than that.  But let's start there.  Philosophy does not spring from science, any more than all human knowledge does.  Science is a type of knowledge, and a body of knowledge, and a philosophy.  All of those in part; and in this case, to be sure, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.  Some of the parts, in fact, are greater than the whole that is "science."

I start this because of a post at Thought Criminal in which Neil DeGrasse Tyson, rather like Carl Sagain before him, displays the limits of his understanding.  Ignorance is not criminal, unless you parade it as knowledge, or a replacement for knowledge.  I got wordy over there, and had to bring the discussion over here.

That post led me to the "original" post, and the comments there.  I didn't think much of the commenter there (somite, @toxicpath) who admonished philosophers to mind their place and show due deference to scientists.  But it took me a moment to realize that even the commuters who ably countered somites rather sophomoric points were themselves still tugging their forelock before the altar of science.

And that bugged me.

Science does not have access to, nor establish the grounds for, what is "true."  Another commenter there said science is concerned with what "exists," never for a moment considering what the word "exists" means in that sentence, or how it could be applied to a stone, a cat, and an individual, with very different purpose each time (while all the time purportedly never changing the meaning of the word).  DeGrasse Tyson himself said in the interview:  "All of a sudden it devolves into a discussion of the definition of words. And I’d rather keep the conversation about ideas."  Which is just a little bit silly.  But the silliness inheres in the attempt to not do what one must do when discussing abstract concepts: engage in philosophy.

Because we simply cannot escape philosophy; and the idea that science is somehow an objective discussion of what is true (or what "exists") is itself a philosophical position.

And a damned untenable one.  But almost every comment at that post (well, perhaps now I'm being unfair; I made no attempt to read 50 of them, no to mention 240 or so) defers to the validity of science as a standard of truth, a kind of deference that is simply "faith-based" (in the Hebrews 11 version of "the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen").  I daresay if you dropped Kuhn into that argument there would first be a half-dozen responses about how Kuhn is widely misinterpreted, followed by a half-dozen more that Kuhn is simply wrong, all because science is, at its heart, about "truth!"

I don't mind the scientists being that ignorant (in that they join religious fundamentalists, for whom a little knowledge is also a dangerous thing), but I do mind when the apologists for philosophy start from the premise that science must be acknowledged as co-equal, if not supreme.

Sorry, but philosophy was here first; and as Hume pointed out, all science can really tell us is analytical statements which are variations on: "This stone is heavy."  Science can lead to products like the computer I type on, or even the vaccines that keep me healthy and the medicines I take to stay healthy; but such work on such matters is done by technicians, by engineers.  Theorists like Tyson or Hawkings work in a rarified atmosphere where engineers aren't supposed to tread; much like the once rarified air of the theologians, v. the priests who dealt with birth, death, disease, and despair among the "messy" lives of real people.

The Greeks understood this.  They even had a name for it.  "Techne," they called it.  It was the knowledge that made buildings like the Parthenon stand, even to this day, without mortar or cement.  It was useful, "techne."  But it wasn't as important as "sophia."  We don't remember the builders of the Parthenon, except among Classics scholars perhaps.  We all know who Plato was; and Socrates.  And Tyson forgets that the logic he prizes so highly in science (but clearly doesn't practice nearly so well) was the product of Aristotle; and refined by philosophers through the ages, including the greatest logician since Aristotle, and friend to Einstein at Princeton:  Kurt Godel (sorry, can't do the umlaut here).

I doubt if Tyson read Godel's Theorem he would understand it.  Does that mean we should dismiss it?

Science can tell us the stone is heavy; engineering can tell us some interesting things we can do with that knowledge.  When you reduce it to the fundamentals, that is really all science is capable of.  It cannot tell us to use the antibiotics we discovered in the 1940's (not yet 100 years ago!) wisely; which is why we face a risk of anti-biotic resistant diseases.  It cannot tell us to use vaccines wisely; and so we face a return of polio, whooping cough, and no doubt German measles.  Science can create these things; but it cannot teach us anything about wisdom.

And in just those two examples, I can ask:  without wisdom, what good is the knowledge given to us by science?

DeGrasse Tyson recently pointed out that the dinosaurs couldn't see the asteroid coming that wiped them out, but we can see climate change coming and have no excuse for not responding to it.  We caused it, after all.  But science made that destruction possible.  True, science can, arguably, also make the cure possible:  but can science make us implement it?  In the simplest terms of Mr. Godel's incompleteness theorem, there are questions science can raise ("What do we do now?") that can only be answered in areas completely outside science.  Science has power; but it does not have the power to make us other than human.  Wisdom is also human; and wisdom also deals with what exists, which is to say, human beings and our existence.  Science explains the material world to us.

It doesn't help us much to understand how we should then live in it.

I was equally bemused by comments at the post arguing there are whole fields of knowledge, as well as philosophical terms, which should be discarded.  Theology, of course, must go; because:  positivism, basically.  "Dualism" should also be expunged; but I ask, very practically, what you replace it with.  Does the writer of that comment even understand how different the conception of the human was before Augustine?  Harold Bloom argues it changed again (or for the first time, perhaps; I don't quite agree with Bloom, when you get down to it) with Shakespeare.  I think it changed again with Wordsworth, who following on Locke taught us that the child is father to the man, an idea we all now identify with Freud and, while no one is a Freudian anymore, try imagining that your childhood didn't lay the foundation for your adulthood, or that you don't do things due to "unconscious" promptings; or that "brain" and "mind" are not two different concepts, indeed, two distinctly different realms.*

Expunge "dualism"?  Go ahead; try it.  Good luck to you chasing down all the metaphors, assumptions, presumptions, and embedded concepts that are as natural to you as your own fingernails.  Indeed, try to think of "you" as being, as the Hebrews did, in your fingers as much as your "guts," in your ears as much as your toes, and that your brain is not separate from the rest of you, that you are not encased in a skull and staring out through two eyes.  Go ahead, try to imagine it is not so, that if you are as paralyzed as the man in "The Butterfly and the Diving Bell," you are still you in your now functionless toes, not "you" locked in the cell of yourself up in that matter atop your neck.

Go ahead; reimagine that, and like Augustine and Wordsworth, make it stick this time for all Western civilization.  Please, I'm asking:  make it so.

I'd love to see the results; because right now, they are literally unimaginable.  Perhaps it can be done; but you can't do it by just expunging words from your vocabulary, or claiming certain ideas "foolishness."

But go ahead; it would amuse me to see you try.

*That would be an interesting question to put to Tyson: what does science have to say about being human?  Anthropology, sociology, psychology; these are not the "hard" sciences that physics and cosmology are.  And can the former provide an adequate answer to the question?  Does Tyson speak to his beloved in terms of anthropology and psychology, or in those vague "ideas" of "love"?  What is love?  Does it exist for science?  How, then, can we say it exists at all?  Away with it!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mother's Day 2014

Arise then...women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly: "We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
From the voice of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe our dishonor, Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace...
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God -
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

I have written before of why I didn't like observing "Mother's Day" during a worship service; though I would reconsider now even passing out flowers to honor mothers with us or gone.

But I would do it in the context of this proclamation, and present this proclamation in the context of some chosen verses about peace, and women, and children, and Caesar, and God.

And it probably still wouldn't go down all that well; talk of bewailing and commemorating the dead, and solemnly taking counsel as a means of living in peace, and being aware we all bear the sacred impress of God, might be more than a Mother's Day could bear.

Then again, it isn't a church service written by Hallmark.....

Friday, May 02, 2014

Making Sense of it All

This is a subject I would say more about if I weren't so lazy at the moment.  That the sacred is also sensual should be a given.  It is Neo-Platonism that teaches us the "intellectual" is higher, the physical "lower," and ultimately lesser.

Such a distinction is at the heart of religious belief as "mere" brain function (there was an article at Salon on this point, but it's not readily available, and I'm not going to search for it.  It wasn't very good, anyway.  Which is not sour grapes; it really wasn't that good.), as something we can identify with certain sectors of the brain, or as "merely" neurological function (which is all science is, too.  Why is one of these things more real than the other?)

All we truly know of the world (it took the British empiricists to hammer down this wall of dualism, and yet we reconstruct it every chance we get) is through our senses, and that includes our knowledge and/or experience of God.  It is all known within the brain, which is where the "mind" we think we have is, as well as the "heart" (which was once the liver).  Why do we continue to think that diminishes the spiritual to something less than authentic? Stevens thought he was being critical of religion (more specifically, as ever, Christianity) when he wrote:

Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measures destined for her soul.

But he was right; and the church has always affirmed the measures of the seasons (hence a liturgical calendar) and the importance of the senses (hence organ music; stained glass windows; vaulted spaces, often darkened; liturgical colors; and bread and wine and water).  True, most of this separation of sense and mind occurred because of the Protestant rejection of the Roman Catholic censors (for incense, not silence), statuary, and even art.  I know a Congregationalist pastor proud of his "meeting house" because it contained no religious iconography at all; yet he is as devout a Christian as I.

But even Protestants are rediscovering the value of the liturgical calendar and liturgical colors, and no one today abandons the iconography of the nativity scene, or eschews the power of the "live nativity" or the "Christmas pageant," with its roots in the mystery plays of the medieval church.

And yet we still insist that what is in the mind is false (unless it is "science" that is lodged there) and what exists in the world is only what it is (while we infuse everything from colored cloth to buildings with meaning, sometimes to intrinsic we don't realize we're doing it).  And we use this all to divide, divide, divide; when it could be as easily seen as all of a piece, and all of it suffused with the spiritual.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

"Stephens 'was just not a conductor' of electricity...."

Not an actual execution.

We are all now agreed that Oklahoma is the new home of barbarism, because a man died during an execution, but not in the way planned for by the state.

Yeah, well, I guess:

"The body turns bright red as its temperature rises," and the prisoner's "flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking." Sometimes the prisoner catches on fire, particularly "if [he] perspires excessively."  Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound " like bacon frying," and "the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh" permeates the chamber. This "smell of frying human flesh in the immediate neighbourhood of the chair is sometimes bad enough to nauseate even the Press representatives who are present."  In the meantime, the prisoner almost literally boils: "the temperature in the brain itself approaches the boiling point of water," and when the postelectrocution autopsy is performed "the liver is so hot that doctors have said that it cannot be touched by the human hand."  The body frequently is badly burned and disfigured.

The violence of killing prisoners through electrical current is frequently explained away by the assumption that death in these circumstances is instantaneous and painless. This assumption, however, in fact "is open to serious question" and is "a matter of sharp conflict of expert opinion." 27 Throughout the 20th century a number of distinguished electrical scientists and medical doctors have argued that the available evidence strongly suggests that electrocution causes unspeakable pain and suffering. Because " '[t]he current flows along a restricted path into the body, and destroys all the tissue confronted in this path . . . [i]n the meantime the vital organs may be preserved; and pain, too great for us to imagine, is induced. . . . For the sufferer, time stands still; and this excruciating torture seems to last for an eternity.' "  L.G.V. Rota, a renowned French electrical scientist, concluded after extensive research that

"[i]n every case of electrocution, . . . death inevitably supervenes but it may be very long, and above all, excruciatingly painful . . . . [T]he space of time before death supervenes varies according to the subject. Some have a greater physiological resistance than others. I do not believe that anyone killed by electrocution dies instantly, no matter how weak the subject may be. In certain cases death will not have come about even though the point of contact of the electrode with the body shows distinct burns. Thus, in particular cases, the condemned person may be alive and even conscious for several minutes without it being possible for a doctor to say whether the victim is dead or not. . . . This method of execution is a form of torture."
Although it is an open question whether and to what extent an individual feels pain upon electrocution, there can be no serious dispute that in numerous cases death is far from instantaneous. Whether because of shoddy technology and poorly trained personnel, or because of the inherent differences in the "physiological resistance" of condemned prisoners to electrical current, see n. 29, supra, it is an inescapable fact that the 95-year history of electrocution in this country has been characterized by repeated failures swiftly to execute and the resulting need to send recurrent charges into condemned prisoners to ensure their deaths. The very first electrocution required multiple attempts before death resulted,31 and our cultural lore is filled with examples of at- tempted electrocutions that had to be restaged when it was discovered that the condemned "tenaciously clung to life." 32 Attending physicians routinely acknowledge that electrocutions must often be repeated in order to ensure death. It is difficult to imagine how such procedures constitute anything less than "death by installments"-"a form of torture [that] would rival that of burning at the stake." Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber,

"At 8:30 p.m. the first jolt of 1900 volts of electricity passed through Mr. Evans' body. It lasted thirty seconds. Sparks and flames erupted from the electrode tied to Mr. Evans' left leg. His body slammed against the straps holding him in the electric chair and his fist clenched permanently. The electrode apparently burst from the strap holding it in place. A large puff of greyish smoke and sparks poured out from under the hood that covered Mr. Evans' face. An overpowering stench of burnt flesh and clothing began pervading the witness room. Two doctors examined Mr. Evans and declared that he was not dead.

"The electrode on the left leg was refastened. At 8:30 p.m. [ sic ] Mr. Evans was administered a second thirty second jolt of electricity. The stench of burning flesh was nauseating. More smoke emanated from his leg and head. Again, the doctors examined Mr. Evans. The doctors reported that his heart was still beating, and that he was still alive.

"At that time, I asked the prison commissioner, who was communicating on an open telephone line to Governor George Wallace to grant clemency on the grounds that Mr. Evans was being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. The request for clemency was denied.

"At 8:40 p.m., a third charge of electricity, thirty seconds in duration, was passed through Mr. Evans' body. At 8:44, the doctors pronounced him dead. The execution of John Evans took fourteen minutes."

Similarly, this was the scene at Georgia's electrocution of Alpha Otis Stephens just last December 12th:

"The first charge of electricity administered today to Alpha Otis Stephens in Georgia's electric chair failed to kill him, and he struggled to breathe for eight minutes before a second charge carried out his death sentence for murdering a man who interrupted a burglary.

* * * * *

". . . A few seconds after a mask was placed over his head, the first charge was applied, causing his body to snap forward and his fists to clench.

"His body slumped when the current stopped two minutes later, but shortly afterward witnesses saw him struggle to breathe. In the six minutes allowed for the body to cool before doctors could examine it, Mr. Stephens took about 23 breaths.

"At 12:26 A.M., two doctors examined him and said he was alive. A second two-minute charge was administered at 12:28 A.M."

Stephens " 'was just not a conductor' of electricity, a Georgia prison official said."

Thus there is considerable evidence suggesting-at the very least-that death by electrocution causes far more than the "mere extinguishment of life."  This evidence, if correct, would raise a substantial question whether electrocution violates the Eighth Amendment in several respects. First, electrocution appears to inflict "unnecessary and wanton . . . pain" and cruelty, and to cause "torture or a lingering death" in at least a significant number of cases.   Second, the physical violence and mutilation that accompany this method of execution would seem to violate the basic " dignity of man."  Finally, even if electrocution does not invariably produce pain and indignities, the apparent century-long pattern of " abortive attempts" and lingering deaths suggests that this method of execution carries an unconstitutionally high risk of causing such atrocities.  These features of electrocution seem so "inherent in [this] method of punishment" as to render it per se cruel and unusual and therefore forbidden by the Eighth Amendment. 

That's from Glass v. Louisiana,  a Supreme Court case from 1985.  I assume this is why executions are no longer public, and why the officials drew the curtain on the execution room in Oklahoma.  Some things should not be witnessed.

Whether they should be conducted is another matter.

The problems with death by electrocution, which it turns out wasn't as quite and unassuming as the movies made us think it was, led to the use of lethal injections.  But electrocution wasn't the only flawed method of killing people:

During the 47 minutes of the execution, Gray “foamed at the mouth and [beat] his head violently against a metal pole just behind the chair.” Executioners drew the blind on the viewing chamber after a few minutes.
Seated before the squad, the volley of bullets only knocking him out of the chair while he screamed “Oh my God! My God! They have missed!” He bled to death 27 minutes later.

And, in 1992:

Asphyxiation. Death was not pronounced until 10 1/2 minutes after the cyanide tablets were dropped.During the execution, Harding thrashed and struggled violently against the restraining straps. A television journalist who witnessed the execution, Cameron Harper, said that Harding's spasms and jerks lasted 6 minutes and 37 seconds. "Obviously, this man was suffering. This was a violent death ... an ugly event. We put animals to death more humanely." Another witness, newspaper reporter Carla McClain, said, "Harding's death was extremely violent. He was in great pain. I heard him gasp and moan. I saw his body turn from red to purple." One reporter who witnessed the execution suffered from insomnia and assorted illnesses for several weeks; two others were "walking vegetables" for several days.

No wonder they draw the curtains.

There are 43 more stories at that link, all regarding executions since 1982.  There are plenty of examples, at both links, of problems with lethal injections.

"In 1890," Jeffrey Toobin tells us, "the Justices said that the process could not include “torture or a lingering death.”  Obviously, they didn't really mean that.  What they meant was the procedure should not mean to include torture or a lingering death.  Because I don't think there is a form of execution which doesn't include torture or a lingering death for some inmates.  And yet we've never declared execution wholly unconstitutional.

We should at least face the fact that it's barbaric and inhumane.  What happened in Oklahoma wasn't an aberration because the Governor challenged the jurisdiction of the Oklahoma Supreme Court over an execution (the question before the Oklahoma Supreme Court was a civil one; like Texas, Oklahoma has a high court which hears only criminal appeals.  But the Oklahoma Supreme Court decides when it has jurisdiction, even against its criminal court counterpart; not the Governor). It wasn't aberrant at all.

It was the norm.

That is what is barbaric.