Obsession Point

I have a friend who likes to engage me on our points of departure.  He’s a self-admitted conservative, I am not.  He’s a sincere Christian, I’m an atheist.  Looking around at the current culture, you would think that should make any conversation we might have problematic at best, impossible at worst.

Yet we carry on the occasional hour, two-hour, sometimes three hour conversation and never once descend into anger or dismissive rhetoric.  And yes, we talk about religion regularly.  We talk about politics.  We talk about meaningful living.  It’s the kind of exchange of ideas from different perspectives that seems both rare and uniquely pleasurable.  Would that we taught kids growing up how to appreciate this kind of conversation as, at the very least, an æsthetic pleasure.

Consequently, when he questions me on priorities, I tend to listen.

A couple weeks ago, after the monthly jam session (he runs a church basement coffeehouse to which I’ve been going and participating for more than a few years now) we hung around and started talking about current subjects.  My opening statement concerned the new movie Noah and the absurd fact that the studio has decided to put a disclaimer on it to appease religious reactionaries who are bothered by “historical inaccuracies.”  I expected a laugh over the ridiculousness of this—these are not people who have much patience for that kind of shallow literalism—but instead what followed was a discussion of my obsessive attention to people like Ken Ham and the anti-evolution crowd and biblical literalists in general.

“Why do you pay any attention to them?”

Well, I replied, somewhat glibly, stupidity is fascinating.

Patiently, though, my friend worked at that.  Really?  Aren’t there better things to focus your attention on than the obdurate intractability of intellectual ostriches?  Don’t you have, like, books to write?

At the end of the conversation (which is not to say that it’s over) I had to concede that I spent far too much time and mental energy worrying over the misreadings, misinterpretations, manglings, and malignancies of what is a minority example of entrenched ignorance.  Like watching a neighbor gradually destroy his property (and being unable to do much about it), or watching a slow-motion train wreck, or even repeatedly viewing and complaining about a very expensive yet utterly brainless film, it is both attractive and repellant to observe this particular bit of cultural shadow-play.

The answer to the question has occupied me now since.  Why do I give them so much of myself?

The glib answer is that they draw attention to themselves in such a way as to seem important and relevant.  Paying attention to them feels, on a shallow level, like being engaged.  Noticing them, knowing what they’ve been saying and seeing what they’re doing, seems like being a responsible agent in my own culture.  Every time they manage to censor discussions in schools about evolution or try to force prayer into the classroom or some other culture-war battleground is pushed into the news, being aware of it just seems the thing to do.

A somewhat less glib answer is that the very real political power such groups seem to enjoy worries me.  I don’t want to live in a country designed by biblical literalists.  And determining how they’re wrong and why is basic to any kind of pushback.

And of course, since this conversation took place, we have the incident of the FOX television affiliate in Oklahoma blocking fifteen seconds of the new Cosmos program, the 15 seconds dealing with evolution, and my blood boils.  I react.  I become insensed.   And I immediately go to write a new blog post about how stupid this is and how malevolent this kind of nonsense is and how—

Which is, actually, a waste of my time.  Really, there are better-qualified people doing exactly that.  You can find links to some of them on the sidebar over to the right.  You want to read a better-informed and more current tirade against this kind of thing, go to Freethought Pharyngula—P. Z. Myer is an evolutionary biologist and apparently has more time, energy, and inclination than I do to keep abreast of all this nonsense—or check the science blogs to which I maintain links.

I don’t have to do this.

And yet…and yet…I keep doing it.  Even here,  in addressing a different kind of question, I’m thrashing about and striking back.  Willful ignorance, asserted as if it is a positive attribute, with an insistence that it is Right and Truth and we should all bow to its inevitable godlines MAKES—ME—CRAZY.


Because, at base, I loathe my own ignorance.  I loathe that part of me that desperately wants to be right, whether I am or not.  Because I am aware of my ignorance and strive to correct it and because I see that as an important fight it disturbs me—more, it frightens me—when others not only don’t see the worth in that fight but are dedicated to preventing the triumph of knowledge.

So, I suppose the simple answer to my friend’s question is—fear.  Those people scare me.  They are the ideological descendents of Inquisitors, witchfinders, book-burners, imperialists of dogma, stone-throwers, and censors.  Because I read Lest Darkness Fall and Fahrenheit 451 and my imagination is such that I can see what a victory for them would mean for people like me.

And because I honestly lack any kind of faith in those who are my intellectual and cultural kindred that we will win this fight.

But that still doesn’t fully address the challenge he laid at me feet.  Why do I  pay so much attention to all this when I could better serve my own purpose and the purpose of the civilization I support in so many other ways?

Because, when combined with all of the above, this has become a rut.  It is easy.  And it feeds my sense of relevance.  But really it’s a paltry diet.  There are richer meals to be had, that would be more beneficial, to me and to others.  So it is an itch which has become easy and habitual for me to scratch.  And in certain company, it’s a sign that I am part of a certain group of like-minded.

It’s a poor excuse.  I could be doing better things with my time and frankly getting more out of my intellectual life.  Because at the end of the day, I’m not going to change their minds, and those who nod along with me when I dive into one of my tirades don’t need me to tell them about this.

I think it is worth paying attention to when tax money goes to something like Ken Ham’s Creation Museum.  That’s an abuse of public trust and a violation of the law, frankly, and should be made public and stopped.

But I don’t need to go on about Ken Ham’s idiocy.

The spot that itches has grown raw and inflamed from repeated scratching and no salve is in sight.  I need to leave it alone.  I have a book on mathematics to hand, another about the history of science fiction, and still another about World War I.  Yes, I have a couple of books dealing with the assault of reason, which is not only from a religious reactionary quarter—reason is under assault from many quarters—but I’m a fiction writer.  My job is to tell stories about the world and because I write science fiction I can do a little prognosticating.  I have to stop pissing away time on pointless subjects.

Besides, I really do think they’ll fade.  When I sit myself down and really examine it, the world view we define as that of Reason will maintain and eventually the nattering naysayers will diminish.  It’s just difficult to see that day to day and believe it when there are people worrying over the “historical” inaccuracies in a Hollywood film about a mythical event.

So I wish to thank my friend for opening a door and pointing out that I’ve been perhaps wandering the wrong hallway for a time.

This is why we must cultivate relationships with people we disagree with.

Controversial Common Sense

So Virginia’s new attorney general, Mark Herring, has announced he will not defend his state’s ban on gay marriage.  He has made a personal journey and concluded that doing so would be inconsistent with constitutional guarantees and common decency.  He cited Loving v Virginia as precedent, saying basically that the Supreme Court did not  declare that blacks and whites had the freedom to marry, but that people do.  As far as Mr. Herring is concerned, gays are people.  First.

Good for him.  I suspect this is an issue that has arrived.  More and more states are reviewing the legality of such bans and finding that, ethically and morally, they do not stand up, personal prejudice notwithstanding.  You have to designate certain folks as Not People for the purposes of maintaining such restraints and the problem with that—philosophy 101—is the lack of any kind of nonsubjective criteria.  In other words, just ’cause you don’t like somethin’ don’t mean you get to outlaw it.

You would think this would just be common sense, not controversial, but the problem for some folks is that they can’t separate personal reaction from public policy.  They look at something that bothers them and never once question the fact that maybe the problem is theirs, not the thing they find objectionable.  It seems silly to have to point this out to supposedly grown people, but if I’ve come to any realization about so-called Adulthood it’s that it also has no basis in objective reality.  Many adults are just kids with a little power and “rights.”  Somewhere along the way, maturity eluded them.  They insist publicly that “those people” should take responsibility for their own lives (over whatever issue happens to be at hand) and then impose laws, if they can, to make it harder if not impossible for such an outcome.  What they really mean is that “those people” should conform to expectations—their expectations—and change to suit common sensibilities.

Which clearly, in this case, are not so common anymore.  I think it’s fair to say that public opinion has turned and those who are still acting under the assumption that the majority of their fellow citizens agree with them that homosexuality is a “sin” and gay marriage will damage the country are increasingly in the minority.  As their numbers shrink, though, they get louder.  Judging by the decibel level one might think they still represent the majority.

It fascinates me, though, how certain folks insist on freedom to live as they choose and then try to deny others the same right, as if freedom is a small pie that has to be sliced carefully.  Give too much to one, it leaves less for others.  This has always been a common belief, evidently, judging by the way people act and talk, and has always been a lie.  But then, they aren’t insisting on freedom—not really.  They’re insisting on preferred form.  (It has always puzzled me how someone in, say, a small country far away can look the camera in the eye and declare that he is fighting for freedom and then turn around and deny freedom to half the population of his  country—women.  Clearly this is not freedom being defended but a presumed right to observe lifestyle choices which include oppression.  Freedom is a much misused term.)  Such folks, when pressed, will deny reality like a mental contortionist in order to have their way.

Well, good for Mr. Herring, and good luck.  Virginia is the seat of paradox, the home of Jefferson and Madison and yet at one time the state with the largest number of slaves.  Few places represent such extremes so vividly, between ideals and practice.  It’s nice to see a move toward bringing the two closer in line.

Upgrading Myths

I saw Man of Steel this past weekend and while I enjoyed much of it, some of it was troubling, and I’ve been pondering ever since.  To be sure, taking up so much brain time with a cinematic version of a comic book seems absurd, but only until you realize how much this stuff means to us as a culture.

Superman is a 20th Century American Myth and it has, whether we like it or not, supplied a good deal of workaday philosophical grist for our collective mills.  We keep revisiting it (and revising it and rebooting it and returning to it) for reasons that have nothing to do with common sense and everything to do with how we see—or would like to see—the world.

Disclaimer:  I grew up watching George Reeves as Superman on tv.  I didn’t collect the comics so much.  Some, sure, but not like friends of mine who had stacks of them encompassing years, even decades.  As a kid, I was certainly enamored of the idea of being super strong.  (I was bullied, you bet I fantasized being able to fly, see through solid objects, and take a punch that might result in my attacker breaking his hand.)  But as I grew older I just couldn’t relate to the guy from Krypton as much as I could with Batman.  Superman was never top of the heap for me.  Just so you know.

I very much liked the Christopher Reeve film.  They hit that note perfect as far as I was concerned.  And should have left well enough alone as the subsequent films just got worse and worse.  (Superman Returns for me was an impressive-looking meh.)  I liked Lois & Clark a lot.  Not so much Superboy or Smallville.  The substance of the myth only goes so far, then it has a tendency to lend itself—badly—to soap opera (is Lois ever going to get this guy in the sack?  What about Lana? And Jimmy!), which even the estimable Lois & Clark fell into eventually.

But we’re talking about a 20th Century reboot of a Greek Myth—the god (or demigod) who comes to Earth, does amazing feats, and is wooed, sometimes seduced (or does the wooing, seducing, or, more commonly, just plain raping) by a mortal woman.  Resulting in…

Well, the thing about the Greek gods is, every time they came down from Olympus to meddle about with the mortals they left a mess behind.  They just didn’t know how to not break things.

I liked that Man of Steel went there.  When the film had been out for a time, I remember people complaining about how violent is was.  Well, yeah.  It would be, wouldn’t it?  Part of the implausibility of Superman is how tidily he fights crime.  Here, in this instance, he has to mix it up with his own kind, and to be true to its pretensions it was going to get ugly.

Where the film failed for me, thematically, was that it insisted that no new mythology could be concocted from these unlikely elements.  Christopher Nolan and company, who did a wonderful job with Batman, were clearly working toward dumping all the old stuff and coming up with a new approach, that is without changing the basic idea.  Kal-el is an alien.  He was sent here to avoid the fate of the rest of his people.  He grows up to become the ultimate Hero.  Obviously there are resonances to the Greeks and just about any other ancient pantheon you care to name.

Just as obviously, there’s no good reason to stick to the old template when trying to turn a fantasy construct into a piece of science fiction—which is what they tried to do.

Large doses of Factored Plausibility were injected into this film.  The scene of young Clark in grade school, suddenly having his X-Ray Vision come on line and c0mpletely freaking out was superb.  Yes, this would seem likely under these circumstances.  And the talk with Jonathan in the aftermath of his saving the bus of kids from the river.  This is not a Depression Era salt of the earth Jonathan Kent, but a man in the presence of something he can’t handle who is scared all the time.

And the whole backstory of Kryptonian exploration and outposts—it seems they were basing much of this on Imperial China, which was a civilization that at one time had a vast exploratory fleet and maybe even colonies and then decided not to bother with Outside and shut it all down. But of course, they left stuff all over the place.  This is good, solid extrapolitive retooling.  It made it all less Olympian and far more geopolitical.  Good, very good.

But then there is the Christ Imagery.

You know what I’m talking about.  Clark wandering the Earth, going out to the wildnerness, becoming Himself—for 33 years before coming out as an alien.  And if you didn’t get it with that, then the shot of him leaving the Kryptonian ship, arms extended, a human crucifix…

And Jor-el as the ephemeral father from heaven.

The battle with Zod and the others is obviously a war with demons—or perhaps only with those who would not give up an absolute adherence to tradition, the ultimate evangelists, that have to be tossed out of the temple.

The problem is, it was incomplete and mongrel.  They threw that stuff in there in order to play the audience, establish a mythic resonance with the familiar even as they were clearly trying to recast the myth into something more plausible in a science fiction context.  They didn’t actually do anything with those little bits.  And Jesus is really not the appropriate myth in the first place.  Moses was always the grounding myth of Superman, and they actually missed the boat on this one by severing his connection to “his people.”

It’s mix-and-match mythology, done slickly and cynically—the image will mean something, but we don’t actually have to have it inform the story with anything.  It’s just a hook.

And not a very satisfying one.

Part of the problem is that Superman is such an uncooperative idea with which to make good science fiction.  They tried mightily in this one, but they kept coming up against the parts that make no real sense other than as fantasy—or myth.  They tried for an upgrade but ended up with just a patch.  So it is neither the old familiar Superman (which Christopher Reeve portrayed so well) or a brand new, fully reimagined Superman that might suit the 21st Century.  This wouldn’t matter so much if not for the fact that Superman had been made and has always served to Mean Something.  We have long since realized he could never be A Savior, not in the sense perhaps implied by Nolan et al.  He’s one man, although incredibly gifted, and even he can’t be everywhere and do everything.  So overtly tying him to Christ is a cheat.  It’s also not what he was intended to represent.  Ever.

At best, Superman represented the idea that limits are intended to be superseded.

That’s my take, anyway.  What Man Of Steel was intended to mean, I’m not sure.  Maybe the makers weren’t, either.  But if they do another one, I would suggest trying to come up with new substance for new myths.  The old ones don’t work so good anymore.  If you’re going to upgrade something like this, leave the past behind.  At least that part of it that no longer answers any real needs.

Either that, or leave it as a comic book and don’t change anything.

Great special effects, though.  Cecil B. DeMille would be envious.

War On Christmas?

By now most people know about the flap over FOX News person Megyn Kelly’s absurd remarks concerning the ethnicity of (a) Santa Claus and (b) Jesus.  Actions within the DMZ of the annual War On Christmas have reached new levels of ridiculous.

I wasn’t going to say anything about this, but…

Santa Claus is white?  Really?  After all this time, we’re going to have that debate?

If you must know, Santa Clause is your favorite uncle dressing up in a red suit and bellowing joyously at a key moment in your life.  What color is he?  What nationality?  Whatever you answer, then you know what color Santa Claus is.

Santa Claus is not St. Nicholas.  Not because an argument cannot be made that the legends of St. Nikolaos of Myra (or Bari, depending which one prefers) can’t be construed as the model for the modern Saint Nick, Sinterklaas, aka Santa Claus, but because Santa Claus, culturally, is something else altogether by dint of centuries of “drift” and the compiling of other attributes of distinctly non-Christian provenance.   Like Christmas itself, the two long ago became Something Else.  (The modern Santa Claus is more descended from pre-Christian Germanic Odin than anything Christian.  Christmas itself, as we practice is, is from the Yule celebrations of the same pagan tradition.)

Jesus…well, really, does this actually need explaining?

But the question is, does all this constitute any kind of “War On Christmas”?  I don’t see Christmas suffering a bit.  It is now as has been since I can remember a time of family, of friends, of fellowfeeling, of charity, corny music, decorations, and the setting aside for a day, a week, a month of petty differences to embrace one another.  I haven’t seen much evidence that we’re doing any less of this than ever before.

What there is some struggle over is the idea that some people have it wrong and that those who think they have it right have some kind of obligation to shame the rest of us into accepting their version above any other.  Failing that, they then take it upon themselves to take our indifference to their dogmatic myopia as evidence of a war on Christmas and launch a counterattack by pissing and moaning about…

Well, frankly, about style.  As far as I can tell, they don’t like what other people’s Christmas looks like.  For one, we seem to have these other traditions all mingled in—Hannukah and Kwanza—distorting and “sullying” their vision, as if it’s all some kind of banquet hall and they object to the decorations.

I suppose what really bothers me this time is the flat out racism in evidence.  Santa Claus is white, get over it.  Jesus is white, historical fact, too bad about all you other people who think it might be otherwise.


Let me ask, in all seriousness, what color is the human heart?  I don’t mean the muscle, I mean the essence of our sentiment.  What color is that?  Because I was raised to believe that both Santa Claus and Jesus were all about the human heart, about healing it, about nurturing it, about celebrating it, which makes it an essential aspect of our commonality.  After discarding much of the silliness of both icons, I still find inspiration and succor in that basic truth.  I think that part is a good idea and how it is celebrated is irrelevant alongside the idea that it is celebrated.

And that has no color.  No ethnicity.  No politics, no religion, no ideology.  Just you and me and who we love and who we wish to love and the desire that love be the universal attribute by which we know ourselves.

So if there’s a war on Christmas, it is being prosecuted by those who keep insisting that there can be only one way to celebrate it.  Such people are truly small of spirit, and now it appears they’re bigoted as well.

Which is really sad.  Look at the opportunity being passed up in this, of getting outside your tiny enclave of conspiracy-driven paranoia and siege mentality and finding out that maybe those people down the street you’re not sure about are really kind of cool and interesting.  Being so publicly obsessed withe tropes instead of getting down with the True Meaning of the Holiday is just dumb and more than a little hateful.

Christmas is what we make it, out of the feelings of sharing and discovery and renewal.  It’s about being open and forgiving and generous and for one day out of the year setting aside differences and realizing that, in a very basic way, there aren’t any.  It’s about letting in the idea that we can be better together than alone and that shared joy multiplies and that there ought to be no limits on that.  It’s a Technicolor time.

It shouldn’t be whitewashed.

Boycotts and Bully Boys

I’m not going to the theater to see Ender’s Game, not because I’m boycotting it or Mr. Card, but because I don’t care enough about it to spend coin on it.  Of course, that can be said of 99% of the movies released in the last couple of decades—we don’t go to the movies anymore.  It’s a habit we got out of shortly after buying a house.  Priorities, y’know?

Not that I don’t eventually see them.  (We finally saw The Time Traveler’s Wife this past weekend, long after it’s theatrical release.  A couple of weeks back we saw Cloud Atlas at a friend’s house.)  We get there, eventually, but we aren’t driven by the mass energy of the zeitgeist.  It has benefits.  Seeing things well after the initial hype and scurry allows for a calmer, less media-driven appreciation.  We see it when we’re ready.

I doubt I’ll ever be “ready” to see Ender’s Game in that for decades now I’ve encountered a low-level of discussion about the novel and, more recently, its author, that “distance” is not something achievable in the sense of seeing it when controversy is not hanging in the air, like the smoke from a dozen cigars shortly after their users have left the room.  Ender’s Game is one of those novels that have acquired a kind of cultural mass, a displacement quotient, around which debate, reaction, argument, and controversy orbit.  Dune is one of those, but for different reasons.  (Outside the genre examples of this abound—think Catcher In The Rye, Ulysses, Atlas Shrugged.)  The mention of them in the right group triggers what eventually become standard, predictable set-piece conversations, and one counts status points and self-defines socially/politically/culturally by one’s stance vis á vis how one feels about the subject.  They take on lives of their own.  You could almost put them down on guest lists or schedule them as part of the entertainment over dinner.

I read Ender’s Game in the early 1980s, I don’t remember exactly when.  I remembered the novelette from which it was expanded as being one of the better stories in Analog in the Seventies.  My reaction?  I enjoyed it thoroughly.  It was a good ride.  I went on to read several more Orson Scott Card novels, eventually losing interest in him.  I felt the sequel to Ender’s Game—Speaker For The Dead—was a superior novel, much more substantive than the first.  I did not then nor do I now think either was Card’s best work.  I went through a phase of OSC and moved on.  (He wrote a series of superb short stories early in his career, which are still, some of them, masterpieces.)

Now the movie is coming out and so has Mr. Card, apparently, and guess what?  He’s become a lightning rod of controversy because he is not much like his landmark stories.  He is a very openly homophobic man and apparently one of those who talks blithely about governmental overthrow if the country doesn’t go the way he thinks it should.

(I say “blithely” because we hear this all the time and often from people who are so engaged with things as they are that it is difficult if not impossible to take them seriously.  It has all the significance of a child threatening to run away from home or stop breathing if things don’t conform to expectations.  It’s a way of attracting a certain kind of attention.  Someday the rest of us may learn that the best way to deal with this is to ignore them.)

How many other people does this sound like?  We may personally know someone who thinks and talks this way.

And most of the time it never comes up.  The plumber might be a Tea Party idiot, but since we never talk politics with him, we never know, and hell, he does good work.  If someone else informs us that he is a political idiot, do we automatically stop using his services?

Boycotts are being called for with regard to OSC.  In one instance, pains have been taken to distinguish between this and any kind of censorship.  It’s not his ideas being boycotted but the man himself, by denying economic support.  A fine line, that, and there is a difference, because ideas can’t be so constrained according to the moral calculus of our political standards, but we can always choose freely what we do or do not spend our money on.  The difference is real, of course, but so is the fact that in public action ideas tenaciously refuse to be teased free of their purveyors, so to attack the one (economically) is to impact the other (dialectically).

I won’t be joining any boycotts.  To my mind, a boycott is personal.  I choose what to spend my money on and that makes it personal.  By joining an organized boycott, it no longer is personal, not in the same way.  It’s political, and mass political movements have a tendency to lose the kind of finesse and nuance the personal necessitates.  Because your personal viewpoint necessarily becomes subsumed in the politics of a movement and dissension from the movement aut0matically becomes suspect by the larger group.  Conformity evolves, individualism becomes confused then lost, and what began as a specific protest of a specific thing becomes a cookie cutter that divides the public from the private in a regrettably destructive way.

Further, this is coming painfully close to book banning.  I know, no one is calling for that, in fact so far everyone is very carefully denying that is what is going on.  But it’s not very many steps between boycotting one movie, one book, one author and boycotting a body of work and then arguing that said body of work should not be “supported” (available) and removing it from…

So it goes.  Suddenly the socially conscious, liberal minded, civil rights oriented boycotters morph into thought police.

How likely do I think that is to happen here?  Not very.  But that’s not argument against refusing to participate in the boycott.  Just because in this instance it won’t happen doesn’t make the process any less odious.

This is a purely personal viewpoint.   I won’t join or support a popular boycott like the one being called for against Orson Scott Card because by doing so I lose a certain amount of control over what I might mean by not spending coin on him or his work.

And besides, Card himself stated it—such protests put more money in his pocket, because controversy attracts profits in this game.  Catcher In The Rye might never have become the phenomenon it did had it not been banned.  The wrong kind of attention was paid it and boom! it’s a cultural icon.  Regardless the quality of the book.

My personal opinion about Ender’s Game has been consistent since a few years after originally reading it when I realized that it was—is—manipulative, button-pushing, and fundamentally flawed.  It depicts scenarios of responses to bullying that are devastatingly gratifying and wholly implausible and unsupportable.  It is a well-written rollercoaster ride that I enjoyed at the time of reading that later left a bitter aftertaste.  I thought it only worth praising because of its sequel, which is a novel of redemption and expiation, a startling portrayal of guilt and responsibility and an argument for tolerance.

Which is ironic, since the work portrays a level of empathy and compassion the public statements of the author belies.  The man who wrote Speaker For The Dead is not the same as the one who seems bent on revolution in order to prevent gays from being able to live as equals in a human society.

Unless…and this is a wicked thought, but not inconsistent with some of the great monsters of religious thought down through the ages…unless the whole purpose of Speaker For The Dead  is to argue that such redemption is the whole point of the series.  That Ender is not sorry for what he (unknowingly) did to the Formics so much as willingly embracing his rôle as a Shiva Christ.  His fate, his destiny is to shoulder that responsibility, not avoid it—not wish he had never done it—but to immerse himself in the total package of destroyer and mourner.

And one cannot mourn what is not lost.  So the Formic had to perish so he, Ender, could be St. Stephen.

Which makes it not so much an argument for tolerance, belated or otherwise, but an argument that the goal of human enlightenment is to wallow in the shame of unbridled destruction.

(In a way, this is much like the many cults of the Native American the United States has embraced in the last century and a half, cults that romanticize and eulogize the vanished Indian, appraisals that could not exist the way they do without the very destruction of the Indian they seem to mourn.  The Indian had to die in order for this peculiarly American form of self-flagellation to be enjoyed and enshrined in film.)

Not something, to my mind, which should be shoved off the stage, boycotted into oblivion.  That is something that needs to be discussed, at length, so we can recognize it when we encounter it.

National Day of Idiocy

We should have a National Day of Idiocy to celebrate our rich heritage of public figures who make asinine statements.

I find it both fascinating and revolting how a certain faction reaches for the Holocaust at every opportunity in order to retain their illusion that just about everything that makes them even mildly uncomfortable is part and parcel of the horrible paradigm that led to a slaughter which some of their supporters think never even happened.

The mayor of Charlotte, N.C. declared May 2nd a Day of Reason.  It also happens to be the national Day of Prayer.  While some may see this as pure hype and opportunism, there’s common factor between the two things—both have to do with finding guidance.  I doubt the majority of people see much conflict between prayer and reason—in fact, most would likely conjoin them, if not as philosophical counterparts at least as practical allies—but there are always those who will insist on seeing Evil in everything that is not christian.

So, the Enlightenment led to the Holocaust (because of moral relativism). My my. I suppose that’s why Hitler kept burning books, because he was such an Enlightenment fan boy.

This also overlooks things like the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Spanish expulsion of Jews, the Thirty Years War, the murder of Giordano Bruno, the Albigensian Crusade…

Of course, all those things were, I suppose, in response to moral relativism?

No, this is typical ahistorical nonsense from people who can’t seem to pull their heads out of the heavenly clouds. It would be laughable if not for its scope. Lamar Smith of Texas is proposing a bill to eliminate peer review in government-funded science programs. It’s a bit more complex than that, but in essence Smith wants technology programs, not basic research, and clearly does not understand how science is conducted or even why it’s important. And he’s on the Science. Space, and Technology Committee. No, wait, he’s the chair of the committee.

Laugh, cry, or go on vacation. The only question is how these people got where they are and have the ability to disrupt so much by sheer assertive nonsense.

What might follow now, as in past posts, would be a lengthy discourse on the nature of reason and why these people are wrong, but I’m tired and really, if you already find what they’re saying and doing crack-brained then you don’t need the lesson. I applaud the mayor of Charlotte for having the chutzpah to declare a Day or Reason in a state that thinks prayer will prevent Obama from being re-elected. (I’ll give you all a minute to digest that.) I’d like to see a few more politicians stand up to the idiocy.

Maybe we should establish a national Day of Lunacy on which we all find someone steeped in misinformation—you know, people who think FOX news is actually news?—and attempt an intervention. Get them to a lecture on the scientific method. Make them watch an episode of NOVA. Take them to lunch with Neil de Grasse Tyson.

What I would very much like to see is a genuine response among enough people matter to defend reason and science and instead of it just being a cool trendy thing that gives us new toys every few years actually elevates the level of national discourse.

Yeah, I still dream occasionally.

Meaning, Cults, Freedom

Recently, I finished reading Lawrence Wright’s new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollwood, & the Prison of Belief, about Scientology.  It’s a lucid history and examination of the movement.  I wrote a review of the book over at the Proximal Eye, here.  In that review, I touched on a few of the concerns I harbor in regards to religious movements, Scientology in particular, but all of them in general.

The central question in Wright’s book—and indeed in others, for instance Jon Krakauer’s Under The Banner Of Heaven about Mormonism—is the question of volitional surrender.  Why do people hand over the keys to their being to institutions and ideologies that are often based on dubious claims, led by people with clearly autocratic tendencies, to live lives of functional servitude, if not physically certainly intellectually?

There are separate questions here, concerning different stages.  For those born into a group, being raised within its codes and customs, the Outside is by definition alien and the individual is required to do exactly the reverse of the adult who comes into that group from the Outside.  The same question can apply to the apostate who has grown up knowing nothing else—why would you throw over all that you know to embrace this Other Thing?  (The Amish offer an excellent example of the problem, with their practice of rumspringa, a kind of wanderjahr for the youth to go see the outside world and decide for themselves whether to stay or leave the community.  It would seem to be a fair practice, offering freedom of choice, but how fair can it be?  One can read a book about another culture, “know” it intellectually, but that’s a far cry from being able to operate within it, or understand it on any visceral level.  Instead, it’s a kind of wilderness test, which more than likely causes sufficient anxiety that a return to what one has known one’s entire life is virtually guaranteed except for the most adventurous—which may serve the community by culling out those so independent-minded who may cause problems later by nonconformity.)

It would be easy to dismiss certain problems with cultism by seeing past eras as offering essentially little to counter the claims of a charismatic proselyte offering a path to transcendence, but the fact is most of these movements seem immune to any kind of counterargument for those who seem determined to join something that offers them such a path.  For the first generation of Mormons, it didn’t matter that Joseph Smith was obviously coming up with his revelations out of his own head.  When his wife called his bluff on polygamy, all she managed to do was sheer off a splinter group and increase the resolve of the core followers.  What was happening was a sophisticated con, but it didn’t matter, not to those surrounding Smith and later Brigham Young.  It was at that point no longer Smith’s revelation but theirs.  He couldn’t have stopped if he had wished to.  The intricate and alchemical brew of group coherence had happened and it had become Another Thing, an Experience that was true as an experience, regardless of the facts or the motives behind its inception.  The followers had created it and made it its own entity.

Which would suggest that the thing being believed in is less important than the clear need on the part of the acolyte to believe.

Subsequently, this creates a hermetic seal around the object of belief, because belief is not real unless it is absolute.  Criticism of the tenets of faith are not so much attacks on details as on the act of believing.  The whole being of the believer becomes so intertwined with the thing believed as to be one and the same, inseparable.  Personal.  And yet, curiously dispassionate.  It’s not so much a choice as an inevitability, a recognition, an “of course” moment, a “how could I have been so blind?” revelation…

…which automatically renders any question of “how can I be so blind?” inadmissible, unhearable, unsupportable.

It has nothing to do with intelligence.  It’s all about meaning.

The central question of all philosophy is simple: Why am I here?  Even philosophies that seem to render this as an unanswerable—and therefore purely academic question—start from there.  It’s a good question.  What is my purpose in this life?  Religion supplants the inward-directedness of this by offering more cosmic possibilities, often of an unknowable nature, which require belief.  Faith.  No matter what, there is a purpose, a point, and even if I can’t see it, it is at least there.  Meanwhile, here are some guideposts, some rules, some practices that will keep me on a path more or less in sympathy with this higher purpose.  By serving this belief in a telec universe, our own sense of purpose can be, if not answered, at least validated, even if the cause is abstruse or abstract.

Trusting that purpose will be fulfilled simply through faith is not sufficient for the organizations commanding the obeisance of their membership.  If there is a purpose, then actions must be taken to fulfill it, and in lieu of any other clear program, conversion becomes their raison d’être.  They must be seen to be purposeful.  What higher purpose, then, than to change the world.  The clearest way to do that is to convert the world to their cause.  (This is functionally impossible, because there has always been and will always be competing doctrines, but it does raise an interesting question of what would they do if they achieved this end?  After the point at which everyone believed in the same thing, what next?)  And so the continual proselytization such institutions sponsor. (This has the added benefit of redirecting any kind of skepticism from the proselytes potential to ask questions of their own faith into a concern for the potential converts lack of faith.)

There are many definitions of cults, some of which contradict, but at base it is a tricky thing because a “cult” bears sufficient semblance to well-established religions that the only apparent difference is size.  If a charismatic preacher with a hundred followers claims to speak directly to god, he’s a nut.  But if the pope makes the same claim, it is accepted as a matter of faith and accorded a kind of respect the preacher cannot command.  Size.  A hundred people can be deluded, but a billion?  At that level, we tacitly acknowledge that Something Else Is Going On.

My own test has to do with permeability.  Is there egress equal to ingress?  How easily can people leave?  What restrictions are placed on individual interaction with the so-called Outside World, if any?  It’s one thing to claim that people are free to leave at any time, but if the organizational structure requires a cutting off of contact, a limitation of information from outside the group, whether physically imposed or simply a matter of conformity to the group, part of its identity, then it becomes a question meriting a closer look.  Cult? Or religion?  Or, more accurately, cult or church?  The Amish offer an apparent open door, but it’s not really.  Young Amish go out on their rumspringa utterly unprepared because all their lives up to that point have been lived in a bubble that limits information, limits experience, limits contact, and then makes it an either-or test.  (That the limits are self-imposed does not matter since they are self-imposed in  order to avoid group censure.) They are unequipped to make the kinds of judgments and choices so many of us take as a simple right to associate with whom and in what way we choose.  (The big difference regarding the Amish is they do not proselytize.  They don’t go out actively recruiting.  This, to my mind, removes them from cult status and makes them simply what might be called a Pocket Culture.)

A cult guards itself from the Outside by demanding its members shut out anything not wholly contained within the cult.  It actively discourages interface with the world at large.  Sometimes it will go so far as physically impede such contact.

But the members will accept this.  The question brought up by Wright’s book is, why?

If one genuinely believes that their salvation is at stake, that they risk losing an eternal soul should they question—if, in other words, fear is the motive for strict adherence to a set of doctrines and behavioral restrictions—then it is possible one is being abused.  We have ample evidence and example of abused children remaining intransigently loyal to their abusers.  The possibility of inhabiting another condition, whether “better” or not, is unthinkable, because they risk their identity.

Within the precincts of certain ideologies, part of the experience is literally seeing the world in a different way.  The “truth” of the doctrine is exampled in this seeing.  Things “make sense” in ways they never did before.  (It doesn’t matter here that this new way of seeing can happen with any conceptual breakthrough and that if we’re lucky it happens all the time, throughout life, as a natural part of learning.)  That apparent “clarity” can become so important that anything which endangers it must be avoided, actively shut out.  Questions about the central doctrines simply cannot be entertained when the stakes are so high.

In this way, the apparent glassy-eyed acceptance of conceptual weirdness within certain cults makes sense as the only possible path for someone who has achieved a fragile balance because of a framework of belief and is afraid of losing it by questioning the very beam on which they now stand.  The tragedy is that this balance should be theirs no matter which beam they stand on, but the institution has convinced them that it is not theirs should they question or leave.  People feel they have found a home, but a home is a place from which you can come and go as you please, bringing back what you find, enlarging it and decorating it with new things.  The door is never shut in either direction.  Wright’s subtitle posits “the prison of belief” and that pertains when the door is shut and you either don’t leave or if you do you can never come back, which turns the world to which you’ve escaped into just another prison.

Ironically, the one in the deepest cell may be the figure at the center of the movement.  The founder.  Jim Jones, Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, all the others.  None of them could stop being who their followers thought they were.  Ultimately, it killed them all.  They had even less freedom to leave.  Their task was to design the prison and always be in it.  One wonders if they in any way fulfilled their own definition of purpose.