distal muse

observations, opinions, ephemera, and views


June 12, 2017

Light

Just musing on the amazing quality of light.  I’ve been reading several science books lately, one in particular (The Invention of Science by David Wootton) that goes into considerable depth about actual Seeing as essential to the transformation of culture from a pre-scientific to scientific basis. But all of them deal with light as a founding subject for the apprehension of the world. Einstein won his Nobel because of the work he did on photons, Newton began with a study of optics, and quantum mechanics wouldn’t be giving both the joys and headaches of our present understanding of nature if not for the whole revelation about quanta and photons and wave functions…

It is essential to everything we are, whether we can see it or not.  As Carl Sagan said, we are made of star stuff and you  cannot think of stars separate from the light.

So a couple of images for you, showing the marvelous manifestations of light.

Caught out the window of the car on our way back from Pittsburgh.

And…

 

Stepping out of my car in an underground garage, early morning, where an opportune window let this beauty in.

Have a good week.

We Prospered: Leonard Nimoy, 1931 to 2015

He was, ultimately, the heart and soul of the whole thing.  The core and moral conscience of the congeries that was Star Trek.  Mr. Spock was what the entire thing was about.  That’s why they could never leave him alone, set him aside, get beyond him. Even when he wasn’t on screen and really could be nowhere near the given story, there was something of him.  They kept trying to duplicate him—Data, Seven-of-Nine, Dax, others—but the best they could do was borrow from the character.

I Am Not Spock came out in 1975.  It was an attempt to explain the differences between the character and the actor portraying him.  It engendered another memoir later entitled I Am Spock which addressed some of the misconceptions created by the first.  The point, really, was that the character Spock was a creation of many, but the fact is that character would not exist without the one ingredient more important than the rest—Leonard Nimoy.

Spock IDIC

I was 12 when Star Trek appeared on the air.  It is very difficult now to convey to people who have subsequently only seen the show in syndication what it meant to someone like me.  I was a proto-SF geek.  I loved the stuff, read what I could, but not in any rigorous way, and my material was opportunistic at best.  I was pretty much alone in my fascination.  My parents worried over my “obsessions” with it and doubtless expected the worst.  I really had no one with whom to share it.  I got teased at school about it, no one else read it, even my comics of choice ran counter to the main.  All there was on television were movie re-runs and sophomoric kids’ shows.  Yes, I watched Lost In Space, but probably like so many others I did so out of desperation, because there wasn’t anything else on!  Oh, we had The Twilight Zone and then The Outer Limits, but, in spite of the excellence of individual episodes, they just weren’t quite sufficient.  Too much of it was set in the mundane world, the world you could step out your front door and see for yourself.  Rarely did it Go Boldly Where No One Had Gone Before in the way that Star Trek did.

Presentation can be everything.  It had little to do with the internal logic of the show or the plots or the science, even.  It had to do with the serious treatment given to the idea of it.  The adult treatment.  Attitude.  Star Trek possessed and exuded attitude consistent with the wishes of the people who watched it and became devoted to it.  We rarely saw “The Federation” it was just a label for something which that attitude convinced us was real, for the duration of the show.  The expanding hegemony of human colonies, the expanse of alien cultures—the rather threadbare appearance of some of the artifacts of these things on their own would have been insufficient to carry the conviction that these things were really there.  It was the approach, the aesthetic tone, the underlying investment of the actors in what they were portraying that did that.  No, it didn’t hurt that they boasted some of the best special effects on television at that time, but even those couldn’t have done what the life-force of the people making it managed.

And Spock was the one consistent on-going absolutely essential aspect that weekly brought the reality of all that unseen background to the fore and made it real.  There’s a reason Leonard Nimoy started getting more fan mail than Shatner.  Spock was the one element that carried the fictional truth of everything Star Trek was trying to do.

And Spock would have been nothing without the talent, the humanity, the skill, the insight, and the sympathy Leonard Nimoy brought to the character.  It was, in the end, and more by accident than design, a perfect bit of casting and an excellent deployment of the possibilities of the symbol Spock came to represent.

Of all the characters from the original series, Spock has reappeared more than any other.  There’s a good reason for that.

Spock was the character that got to represent the ideals being touted by the show.  Spock was finally able to be the moral center of the entire thing simply by being simultaneously on the outside—he was not human—and deeply in the middle of it all—science officer, Starfleet officer, with his own often troublesome human aspect.  But before all that, he was alien and he was treated respectfully and given the opportunity to be Other and show that this was something vital to our own humanity.

Take one thing, the IDIC.  Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination.  It came up only a couple of times in the series, yet what a concept.  Spock embodied the implications even in his trademark comment “Fascinating.”  He was almost always at first fascinated.  He wanted before anything else to understand. He never reacted out of blind terror.  Sometimes he was on the other side of everyone else in defense of something no one seemed interested in understanding, only killing.

I’m going on about Spock because I know him.  I didn’t know Mr. Nimoy, despite how much he gave of himself.  I knew his work, which was always exemplary, and I can assume certain things about him by his continued affiliation with a character which, had he no sympathy for, would have left him behind to be portrayed by others long since.  Instead, he kept reprising the role, and it was remarkably consistent.  Spock was, throughout, a positive conscience.

On the side of science.  I can think of no other character who so thoroughly exemplified rational morality.  Spock had no gods, only ideals.  He lived by no commandments, only morality.  His ongoing championing of logic as the highest goal is telling.  Logic was the common agon between Spock and McCoy, and sometimes between Spock and Kirk.  I suspect most people made the same mistake, that logic needs must be shorn of emotion.  Logic, however, is about “sound reasoning and the rules which govern it.” (Oxford Companion to Philosophy)  This is one reason it is so tied to mathematics.  But consider the character and then consider the philosophy.  Spock is the one who seeks to understand first.  Logic dictates this.  Emotion is reactive and can muddy the ability to reason.  Logic does not preclude emotion—obviously, since Spock has deep and committed friendships—it only sets it aside for reason to have a chance at comprehension before action.  How often did Spock’s insistence on understanding prove essential to solving some problem in the show?

I suspect Leonard Nimoy himself would have been the first to argue that Spock’s devotion to logic was simply a very human ideal in the struggle to understand.

Leonard Nimoy informed the last 4 decades of the 20th Century through a science fictional representation that transcended the form.  It is, I believe, a testament to his talent and intellect that the character grew, became a centerpiece for identifying the aesthetic aspects of what SF means for the culture, and by so doing became a signal element of the culture of the 21st Century.

Others can talk about his career.  He worked consistently and brought the same credibility to many other roles.  (I always found it interesting that one his next roles after Star Trek was on Mission: Impossible, taking the place of Martin Landau as the IM team’s master of disguise.  As if to suggest that no one would pin him down into a single thing.)  I watched him in many different shows, tv movies, and have caught up on some of his work prior to Star Trek (he did a Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode in which he played opposite William Shatner) and in my opinion he was a fine actor.  He seems to have chosen his parts carefully, especially after he gained success and the control over his own career that came with it.  But, as I say, others can talk about that.  For me, it is Spock.

I feel a light has gone out of the world.  Perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but…still, some people bring something into the world while they’re here that has the power to change us and make us better.  Leonard Nimoy had an opportunity to do that and he did not squander it.  He made a difference.  We have prospered by his gifts.

I will miss him.

 

March 23, 2014

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.

Why?

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.

It Hurts

By now, I’m sure, many people know about the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham.  Bill Nye, he of the bow tie, the science guy, stepped up to the podium to have it out, toe-to-toe, with Ken Ham, erstwhile champion of creationism, founder of the Creation Museum in Kentucky which has been the subject of continual mirthful derision by anyone with even a scintilla of understanding about science.  They were to debate evolution versus creationism, which in my mind is like debating the similarities between Einstein and Sasquatch.  Other than the assertion by certain folks that they are somehow (a) equivalent and (b)…well, really, there is no “b” in this formulation.

Apparently even a poll conducted on Christian Today shows that Bill Nye pretty much mopped the floor with Ken Ham, who answered not one single question put to him by Nye in any useful way. Only 9% of respondents apparently saw Ham as the winner.  Of course that won’t be the end of it.  After the debate, a number of self-styled Christians presented questions for Nye which they, presumably, thought would stump him.  Buzzfeed posted several.  Go take a look, then come on back.  (You can also see the entire debate there.)

What’s that phrase? “The stupid…it hurts.”

Was that unkind?  Sorry.  (Not really.)   But while any single one of these can be dismissed as, oh, lack of attention, missed something in biology class (or astronomy), didn’t see that special on NOVA, collectively this amounts to willful ignorance at best.

“If humans came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?”  Seriously?  Do you really not know how dumb that is?  You came from your parents—we all did—so why are there still parents?  Sorry, that was flip, but it does, actually, point up the problem, albeit in a rather crude and simplistic way.

And noetics?  That isn’t part of any segment of this debate, so…?

There was a time I would get mightily energized by this kind of thing.  I admit I had a deep-seated interest in being on the “right” side of this debate.  I still do, but it hardly gets me out the door anymore because I realized somewhere along the way that what we’ve been witnessing in the efforts of people like Ken Ham, as strenuous and perhaps sincere as they are, is the death spasm of a world view that doesn’t work.  It never did, but there was a time that understanding that didn’t make much difference, except to a few intellectual outliers here and there.  The fever pitch of condemnation coming from them is the sound of panic as the world prepares to leave them behind.

No, I’m not talking about the death of religion.  I do not believe that is possible.  I’m only talking about a very public formulation of a view of religion that has as its primary purpose nothing more than the regimentation of the faithful and the casting out of the new.  I’m talking about a narrative that seeks to impose and deny.  Impose its substance and form and deny any countervailing view.  I’m talking, really, about style.

Style is about identity.  When we talk about it that way, as style, it seems insignificant in the larger scheme of things.  Fashion.  And much of it is ephemeral.  But shift it to something else, as in artistic expression, and it takes on a bit more meaning.  The style of a writer is that writer’s voice, personality—identity.  There is something so deeply personal about style in this sense and we all recognize it.  We instantly recognize a musician with whom we are familiar by the style of playing.  Unknown canvases by painters declare identity in the manner of brushstroke or photographs betray their creators by the particular angle, frame, contrast.  Style at this level is inextricably linked to identity and when that style is declared no longer valid, a kind of death attends.

Because this is æsthetics, something utterly vital and intrinsic to our sense of self, yet so rarely discussed when any list of what makes us human gets trotted out for debate.  How we see the world and how we react to what we see, this is æsthetics in action and it defines us.  It defines us culturally, historically, and individually.  You can see it in that list of questions, in many ways so pathetic, when the question is framed in terms of awe and wonder.  A sunset, the amazingness of the world—even that fey reference to noetics—these are questions of reaction and interpretation to sensory experience, filtered through a value system that provides us with a quality of self grounded in our relation to the matrix of reality through which we move:  æsthetics.

Ken Ham’s museum displays exhibits showing humans coexisting with dinosaurs.  At some level, this is a world he wishes to have as real.  What kid doesn’t love dinosaurs at some point?  It’s inexplicable.  I’m continually amazed at what seems to be a persistent fascination across generations.  Part of us really wants there to be dinosaurs.  Not only that, but dinosaurs in our midst, at least at some point.

Dinosaurs aren’t in the Bible.  In fact, I know of no holy book in any culture that mentions them unless you want to see dragons as some neolithic abstraction of dinosaurs.   (They’re not, they emerge out of very different pools of myth, namely serpents, the Worm, but after the discovery and ultimate understanding of fossil dinosaurs dragons became more and more visually conforming to them.)  Yet even the most ardent of creationists are fascinated.  There is no mention of them in Genesis, they would never have fit on the ark, and there’s no mention in that story of any animals left behind (the song about the unicorn notwithstanding).  Had they been, we would have found much, much fresher bones, not buried nearly so deep.

At some point people like Ken Ham came to accept the reality of dinosaurs, not as deceptive deposits from Satan to worry our overly-curious intellects, but as species in their own right.  Intentionally or not, they had to accept science in order to make the effort to write them into their stunted history of the universe, which has opened them to eventual extinction as examples of mainstream thought, much less champions of any kind of reality.

In a way, the debate just passed was totally unfair.  Ken Ham kept pointing to his narrative as its own evidence, offering nothing beyond it to answer the evidence-laden arguments of his opponent.  He wasn’t even in the same debate, really.  He was there to insist that all these things Bill Nye represents should be ignored in favor of a story.  He insists that the story is sufficient and this other thing, this science thing, is nothing but an evil distraction from what he thinks is important.  The sad part is he probably doesn’t even know why that story is important.

It’s important because all wonder-based growth begins as a story.  We’re fascinated, entranced, and there’s magic in the narrative.  So much magic that we want to know more.  And so we go looking and if we look honestly we find so much else that transcends the modest confines of that first story.  We find universes of wonder, which we might never have looked for without first having been delighted by a story.  Ken Ham found a story that amazed him.

But then he stopped.  He stopped looking, because, it seems, he never wanted to leave that first moment of childlike wonder, wanting it to be everything.  It’s sad because while we can revisit it and we can experience the same sensation again and again and again, with new discoveries, if we try to freeze that moment and keep it, unchanging, it either fades…or rots…all on its own.  What some folks do then is build a museum in their hearts to preserve a memory that is no longer there, leaving us with the surrounding edifice and an echo.  Without new sounds, new sights, new growth, the museum calcifies and eventually becomes a fossil, never buried, bleached and empty.

At some point, Ken Ham built that museum out in the open for everyone to visit.

Apparently, fewer and fewer go.  It possesses novelty, but no genuine wonder.  And without wonder, what is there?

 

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.

2016

As usual, Florida is still undecided, a mess. According to NPR, though, it is leaning heavily toward Obama, despite the shenanigans of the state GOP in suppressing the vote.

I didn’t watch last night.  Couldn’t.  We went to bed early.

But then Donna got up around midnight and woke me by a whoop of joy that I briefly mistook for anguish.

To my small surprise and relief, Obama won.

I will not miss the constant electioneering, the radio ads, the tv spots, the slick mailers.  I will not miss keeping still in mixed groups about my politics (something I am not good at, but this election cycle it feels more like holy war than an election).  I will not miss wincing everytime some politician opens his or her mouth and nonsense spills out.  (This is, of course, normal, but during presidential years it gets much, much worse.)  I will not miss…

Anyway, the election came out partially the way I expected, in those moments when I felt calm enough to think rationally.  Rationality seemed in short supply this year and mine was sorely tasked. So now, I sit here sorting through my reactions, trying to come up with something cogent to say.

I am disappointed the House is still Republican, but it seems a number of the Tea Party robots from 2010 lost their seats, so maybe the temperature in chambers will drop a degree or two and some business may get done.

Gary Johnson, running as a Libertarian, pulled 350,000 votes as of nine last night.  Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, got around 100,000.  (Randall Terry received 8700 votes, a fact that both reassures me and gives me shivers—there are people who will actually vote for him?)

Combined, the independent candidates made virtually no difference nationally.  Which is a shame, really.  I’ve read both Stein’s and Johnson’s platforms and both of them are willing to address the problems in the system.  Johnson is the least realistic of the two and I like a lot of the Green Party platform.

But the Greens are going about it bass-ackward.  Vying for the presidency when you can’t even get elected dog catcher in most states is hardly the way to go about it.  What would she do if by some weirdness she got elected?  I think it fair to say a Green presidency this morning would guarantee both major parties working together for the foreseeable future against her.  No, what they need to do is start winning local elections.  Start with city councils and school boards, work up to state legislatures, then a governor or three, and finally Congress.  Yes, that will take time, maybe far more time than anyone has the patience for, but for goodness sake, start.

Which leaves me feeling mixed about the next four years.

Here is what I would like to see happen.  Obviously, Joe Biden is not going to run for office in 2016.  Even if he did, I doubt he’d win, but I think he’s V.P. the same way Dick Cheney was.  An ace in the hole if something happens to the Pres, but not a threat in the next election.  Therefore, the House Republicans have no excuse but to work with the Democrats to get something done.  However you spin it, the last four years have been, in my view, a criminal abdication of responsibility on the part of the GOP, all to “make sure Obama is a one-term president.”  They have squandered the People’s confidence and time and treasure in a party feud that frankly has no real basis other than on the fringes.

That said, the next four years should give them permission to get something done for the country.  They don’t have to work to defeat Obama in 2016, he’s not running then.  Anything that gets done, they can take credit for.  Whoever runs for the Democratic nomination in 2016, it will be a repeat of 2008—two brand-spanking new candidates.  (Romney has said he won’t run again.  We’ll see.)  So there is no reason other than the meanest kind of pettiness to keep blocking.

It is time we got over this artificial divide about capitalism vs. socialism.  We are supposed to be grown-ups here, labels shouldn’t scare us.  The best antidote for that kind of fear is to actually learn something about what scares you, and as far as I can see most of the people who are so terrified that Obama is some kind of socialist (or communist!) are exercising the same kind of intelligence on the subject as those who believe he’s a Muslim or is not a citizen.  (They are exemplified by the sign carrier demanding “Keep your government out of my MediCare!”)  For pity’s sake, people, read a book!

I’ve said this before, probably to little effect, but I will say it again, Capitalism is a system, not some kind of organic natural law thing.  As such, we determine its shape and how it should be used, not the other way around, and it is the same with any other system (like Socialism).  After the Great Depression this country put in place a number of socialist ideas and whether certain folks wish it to be true or not, they have worked well for us as a nation.

Here are a few things that people should consider.  One, any economic system is, at its simplest, simply a method for organizing latent wealth.  By latent wealth I mean the potential product in a given community.  (You can live on a mountain of diamonds but if some kind of organizing principle is not applied to take advantage of those diamonds, they just sit there.  The system you use organizes the work needed to exploit the resource.  But let’s be clear—the person or corporation that brings that system into that community does not by dint of that fact own the labor, the land, or the total product.  The community living there has to give permission, cooperate, and assist in implementing the organizing system, and therefore when Elizabeth Warren made her famous statement that “you didn’t build that all by yourself” that is what she meant, and anyone who claims not to understand that I think is being deliberately obtuse.)  Therefore, we should be willing to apply the methodology best suited to solve specific problems.  We are a polyglot nation, we already use a variety of methodologies depending on region and circumstance, we need to stop being knee-jerk reactionary about this subject.

Consequently, we need to understand a couple of things in slightly different ways.  Currently, we have a problem with large businesses extracting latent wealth from communities and shifting it away from those communities, in fact away from our national borders altogether.  One of the chief tools to counter that is taxes.  Tax dollars drain off a portion of that wealth and return it to the community.  Taxes fix the location of a certain proportion of generated wealth.  Bitch about government spending all you want, the fact remains that money gets spent, in the main, here and therefore helps sustain the community.

To a lesser extent, this fight over minimum wage and Right To Work is misguided.  Requiring businesses to pay a fair wage to their employees also serves to keep that wealth local.  You don’t build a business in Idaho and then, because shareholders are complaining that their dividends are too low, shift those jobs out of the country to increase bottomline.  It should be illegal for businesses to take advantage of location for fiscal purposes while utilizing outsourcing in order to extract money that then does not return to that community.  Right To Work is merely a tactic to suppress local ability to retain local wealth.  We need to start looking at these two things this way or we will see ourselves the richest Third World nation on the planet.

I want to see the military-industrial complex curtailed if not shut down.  Eisenhower warned us of this, but his warning was not based on something that hadn’t happened.  The Spanish-American War is our most famous example of a war begun by private industry for the sole purpose of increasing profits.  We are locked in a cycle of perpetual preparedness and in order to justify the expenditures, we engage in constant military conflict.  We have provided the United Nations with the backbone of its policing power for decades, and while this made sense in the aftermath of WWII when most of the world was devastated, it no longer does—the world has recovered, they can afford to pony up soldiers and materiél.  I support the idea of the United Nations, but the United States has been shouldering a disproportionate share for decades.  I suspect the main reason we have not stopped has entirely to do with the money-making of the defense contractor sector.

Along with that, we must pull back from the blatantly unConstitutional internal security and intelligence practices that have become worse since 9/11.  I was sorely upset when Obama reauthorized the defense authorization act.

But worse than the standing military, that act, along with others, has allowed us to do an end-run around Posse Commitatus by militarizing local police forces.  Our police have become more and more akin to the Stazi in make-up and outlook and this has to stop before we are so inured to it that we can’t recognize loss of civil rights until the cop is knocking on our door for a warrantless search of our home.

A large step to undoing this would be to do something about this absurd war on drugs.  I am not a fan of drugs—hell, I never even smoked a joint—but our response has been distorting of our courts and our police and our national priorities.  The only thing that keeps us from doing something rational is the huge amounts of money involved at all levels.  This has to stop.  We can’t afford to keep doing this, not so much from a fiscal point of view but from the effect it has on all of us, a coarsening of our national psyché, a desensitization to individual circumstance.

Lastly, I would like to see an effort made to address the pathetic state of our educational priorities.  We are becoming a severely divided nation, not so much along class lines (although that is true, too, and I suspect the two are linked), but along the lines of the Knows and the Know Nothings.

Todd Akin sat on the House subcommittee for science.  Need I say more?  (Yes, I probably do.)  All right.  Akin is a supporter of creationism.  I don’t have any problem with someone espousing that view—what I have a problem with is someone with that view serving on what should be a science committee, and with people being okay with that.  If that were not enough, his statements about women’s biology demonstrated that he knows little—or doesn’t care—about actual science (never mind what his views on women’s rights are), and this is a very serious problem, not so much that an elected official should be ignorant along these lines, but that he is representative of people who are even more ignorant.  That goes to education.

No Child Left Behind was one in a string of legislative actions that turned schooling into a horse race.  Getting the scores up are all that matter, so our “ranking” doesn’t fall.  This has nothing to do with what it actually taught or what kids really know when they get out of school.  We need a serious reform lest we keep producing people who, through no real fault of their own, believe the Earth is only six thousand years old and understand next to nothing about biology, never mind evolution.

And I’m sorry—just because you have decided in advance that you don’t believe something doesn’t make it either not true or give you the right to keep others from learning about it.  Nor does it let you off the hook from knowing enough about it to make an informed decision about rejecting it.

I am not by disposition an isolationist, but I do believe this country has been engaging the rest of the world in the wrong way.  We have been—always—very proactive when it comes to defending our business interests overseas, and the overwhelming amount of our foreign policy is less individual-oriented as it is corporation-oriented.  Granted, this simplifies things—but it also distorts things and leads us to make bad choices in places where we don’t know the culture.  We’re paying a heavy price for that from the Fifties.  Our priorities need to change from corporatocracy to our oft-stated and seldom-deployed belief in the individual.

There are other things on my mind, but that’s enough for now.

That’s what I would like to see happen.

What do I expect?

We have been engaged, at street level, in a battle over what it means to be an American, and the ingredients have gotten bizarre.  We have forgotten somewhere along the way that our right to have that battle is our chief defining national characteristic, that winning it is both impossible and beside the point.  Being able to disagree and still have barbecue together has always been the American miracle, and we’ve been losing that.

But I expect it to continue.  Both parties, plus the corporate backing of both parties, have been feeding that conflict because, well, it’s been good for business.  In the crossfire we have forgotten what is genuinely important and started handing over our liberties like good soldiers in an endless war.  So in truth, I expect any real progress to happen on the margins, at times and in places where national attention is elsewhere, under conditions of exhaustion, when no one is paying much notice.  The bread and circuses will continue—well, the circuses, anyway, I’m not so sure about the bread.

The world chimed in recently in polls that asked who other countries wished to see win the election.  In the run up, surveys in over 20 countries indicated a vast preference for Obama—the only two that favored Romney were Israel and Pakistan.  Hm.

But for now, what I’m looking forward to is a few weeks with considerably less politicking.  I’m a bit frazzled from concern.  I have some fiction to write and Christmas to prepare for.

The thing I’m most pleased about?  Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren.  I’ll leave you to figure out why.

Have a good day.

October 11, 2012

My World of Tomorrow

This weekend I’ll be attending the local science fiction convention, Archon.  I’ve only missed a couple of these since 1982, when Donna and I went to out very first SF convention, Archon 6. Stephen King was guest of honor and we got to meet many of the writers we’d been reading and enjoying, some, at least in my case, for many years.  Until that year I hadn’t even known such things happened.

Science fiction for me was part of the fundamental bedrock of my life’s ambitions.  Not just writing it or reading it, but in a very real sense living it.  It is difficult to recapture that youthful, naïve enthusiasm for all that was the future.  The vistas of spaceships, new cities, alien worlds all fed a growing æsthetic of the shapes and content of the world I wanted very much to live in.

I’ve written before of some of the aspects of my childhood and adolescence that were not especially wonderful.  My love of SF came out of that, certainly, but it was altogether more positive than merely a flight response from the crap of a less than comfortable present.  I really thought, through a great deal of my life, that the world was heading to a better place.  I found the informing templates and ideas of that world in science fiction, in the positivist philosophy underlying so much of it.

And I liked that world!

It was not a world driven by bigotry or senseless competition for competition’s sake.  It was not a world where deprivation was acceptable because of innate fatalism or entrenched greed.  It was not a world that lumped people into categories according to theories of race or economics that demanded subclasses.

True, a great many of the novels and stories were about exactly those things, showing worlds where such attitudes and trends dominated.  But they were always shown as examples of where not to go.  You could read the paranoid bureaucratic nightmares of Philip K. Dick and know that he was telling us “Be careful, or it will turn out this way.”  We could read the dystopias of a Ballard or an Aldiss and see them as warnings, as “if this goes on” parables.

You could also read Ursula Le Guin and see the possibilities of alternative pathways.  You could read Poul Anderson and see the magnificent civilization we might build.  You could read Clarke and glean some idea of how people could become more than themselves.

You could see the future.

And what did that future offer?  By the time I was eighteen I knew I wanted to live in a world in which we are all taken as who we are, humans beings, and nothing offered to one group was denied another just because.  I recognized that men and women are equals, that our dreams and ambitions are not expanded or diminished by virtue of gender.  I understood that building is always more important than tearing down.  I discovered that Going There was vital and that the obstacles to it were minor, transitory things that sometimes we see as too big to surmount, but which are always surmountable.

Sure, these are lessons that are drawn from philosophy and science and ethics.  You can get to them by many paths.  I just happened to have gotten to them through science fiction.

I envisioned a world wherein people can engage and interact with each other fearlessly, without arbitrary barriers, and we can all be as much as we wish to be, in whatever way we wish to be it.

So imagine my disappointment as I watch the world veer sharply in so many ways from that future.  A world where people with no imagination, avaricious or power hungry, people of truncated and stunted souls are gaining ground and closing those doors.

There is a girl in Pakistan who may yet die.  She’s 14 years old and she was shot by the Taliban because she dared to stand against them.  She assumed her right to go to school, something the Taliban refuse to accept—females should not go to school—and rather than engage her ideas they shot her to silence her.

In our own country we have men in places of power who think women shouldn’t have the right to control their own bodies, others who opine that maybe slavery wasn’t so bad after all, others who deny the legitimacy of science because it contradicts their wishes and prejudices.

This is not the world I imagined.  Why would any sane person deny anyone the right to an education?  How could the community around this girl even tacitly support this idea?  This is so utterly alien to me that it is incomprehensible.  This is evil.  This is not the world of tomorrow, but some kind of limpet world, hermetically sealed inside its own seething ignorance that, like a tumor, threatens everything that I, for one, believe is worth while.

So I write.  I write stories and I write this blog and I write reviews and I write and I talk and I argue.  It is disheartening to me how many people use their ignorance as a barrier to possibility, to change, to hope.  I can’t help sometimes but think that they would have benefited in their childhood from more science fiction.

I still have hope.  It still comes from the source well of my childhood imagination, that we can build a better world.  If that’s naïve, well, so be it.  Harsh reality, unmitigated by dreams of beauty and wonder, makes brutes of us all.

See you at Archon?

 

October 08, 2012

You Would Think…But No, That’s Too Hard

I thought I might write about something other than politics this morning, but some things are just too there to ignore.  But perhaps this isn’t strictly about politics.

Representative Paul Broun of Georgia recently said the following.  I’m pulling the quote from news sources so I don’t get it wrong.

“God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says. And what I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually. How to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all our public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason, as your congressman, I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.”

His spokesperson later tried to explain that this was off-the-record in a speech to a church group and the representative was discussing his personal beliefs.  What are we to make of such a statement?  That the representative really doesn’t believe what he said?  That he was lying to the church group?  Or that he’s lying to the citizens of Georgia about what he really believes when he is “on-the-record”?

Now, aside from that, there are two things about Broun and this that trouble me.  One, he’s actually a physician.  Which means that he should know better.  (But I don’t actually know what that means in this context anymore.)  And two, he sits on the science and technology committee, along with another great light of biological science, Todd Akin, who seems unclear on how women’s reproductive anatomy works as well as apparently believing you can perform an abortion on a woman who is not pregnant.

It’s not like the rest of the folks on that committee are particularly inspiring, either, but the others focus on environmental science to misunderstand.

The committee’s chair,  Ralph Hall from Texas, also has a habit of invoking the deity in denying the findings of science.  (Obviously he’s a Republican, since they are the majority in the House and committee chairs are always chosen from the majority party.  I wonder how many people actually understand that.  But I digress.)

Here is what bothers me.  We have the tool in hand to investigate and understand the world we live in.  It’s called science and its methods are nonpartisan.  Science, practiced honestly, doesn’t care what Party you belong to, where you stand on fiscal policy or trade imbalances.  It is concerned with all that precedes policy and only gets involved with policy when people start basing it either on the findings of science or for some reason wish those findings to be other than they are.

What it has a very difficult time dealing with is entrenched stupidity that is paired with a power base.

“All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology” and so forth is what gives us the medical expertise we are currently both enjoying (because it works) and having so much trouble deciding how to pay for.  Genuine lies and nonsense do not work.

Except, apparently, in politics.

Now, it is true, I do not believe in god.  There is a reason I don’t and it’s a long and convoluted story, but it began with people like Representative Broun basically lying to me about reality.  The reason I will rely on science rather than his nonsense is because I see that science gives me answers that, in a word, work.  What science describes is borne out by experience and more and more we see that, while sometimes (often) scientists get things wrong, the overall result is that we know why things happen and are learning more all the time.  All people like Representative Broun are saying, stripped of the holy-roller palaver, is “I don’t like what science tells me so I’m going to deny it and tell you that you don’t need it.”

This may seem like an academic argument.  What difference does it make if Broun says it’s god and a scientist says it’s evolution?

Normally, I’d say it doesn’t make much difference, but here is someone who has a position of power, someone whose opinion determines policy, someone whose policy decision could cost lives.  It is irresponsible of the citizens of Georgia to elect what amounts to an myopic ideologue who can hurt millions of people because he doesn’t accept reality.

You do not have to abandon your belief’s in the supernatural in order to accept evolution—millions of believers do this every day.  But you do have to ignore what’s around you to keep voting for someone who is more concerned with convincing you that the world is some other way than it really is than in serving the people competently.

It amazes me how often these days I encounter Republicans who shake their heads and bemoan the state of their Party, claiming that “those morons aren’t real Republicans.”  Maybe not and I’m more than a little inclined to believe them.  But they then continue to vote for these people.  Why?  Because they’re Republicans and they’re loyal to their Party.

Maybe it’s time to rethink that?

Reflections On the 4th of July: A Personal Statement

I am not given to setting out pronouncements like this very often, but in light of the last several years I thought it might be worthwhile to do so on the occasion of the 236th anniversary of our declared independence.

I don’t think in terms of demonstrating my love of country. My affection for my home is simply a given, a background hum, a constant, foundational reality that is reflexively true. This is the house in which I grew up. I know its walls, its ceiling, its floors, the steps to the attic, the verge, and every shadow that moves with the sun through all the windows. I live here; its existence contours my thinking, is the starting place of my feelings.

The house itself is an old friend, a reliable companion, a welcoming space, both mental and physical, that I can no more dislike or reject than I can stop breathing.

But some of the furniture…that’s different.

 

I am an American.

I don’t have to prove that to anyone. I carry it with me, inside, my cells are suffused with it. I do not have to wear a flag on my lapel, hang one in front of my house, or publicly pledge an oath to it for the convenience of those who question my political sentiments. Anyone who says I should or ought or have to does not understand the nature of what they request or the substance of my refusal to accommodate them. They do not understand that public affirmations like that become a fetish and serve only to divide, to make people pass a test they should—because we are free—never have to take.

I am an American.

I am not afraid of ideas. My country was born out the embrace of ideas, new ideas, ideas that challenged the right of kings to suppress ideas. Ideas are the bricks that built these halls. I claim as my birthright the freedom to think anything, entertain any notion, weigh the value of any concept or proposition, and to take refuge in the knowledge that wisdom comes from learning and the freedom to learn is among the most hallowed and sacred privileges we have inherited as a country. The greatest enemy of our republic is the fear of ideas, of education, and by extension of truth and fact. Those who see no harm in removing books from libraries or diluting fact with wishful thinking and teaching our children to accept things entirely on faith and never question will weaken the foundations, damage the walls, and corrupt every other freedom they themselves boast about and then fail to defend.

I am an American.

I do not need to demonize others to make myself feel safe or superior or even right. I do not need to pretend that I am innately “better” than anyone else to prove my own worth. America was founded on the idea that all of us are equal in potential value. I do not need to oppress, undercut, strike, or otherwise impede others so that I can claim the dubious and ultimately meaningless label of Number One.

I am an American.

Sometimes I wear my sentiment on my sleeve, display my emotions at inappropriate times. I often side with unpopular causes, cheer those who aren’t going to win, get unreasonably angry over unfairness. I believe in justice and I don’t have any trouble with the idea of making an extra effort for people who can’t afford it for themselves. Other times I am stoic, even cynical. I accommodate a world-weariness far beyond the scope of my heritage. I do not believe in providence. Things will not just “work out in the long run” and the bad are not always punished and the good too often are crushed. I know the world doesn’t care and has no interest in level playing fields or evening up odds or anything other than its own ravenous acquisitiveness. It’s an uphill battle against impossible odds, but it’s the only one worth fighting, and I have an unreasonable belief that as an American I have a responsibility to help fight it.

I am an American.

I take a childish pride in many of the attributes and details of my heritage. We build things, we invent things, we have moved mountains, changed the course of rivers, gone to the moon, created great art, changed the face of the earth, broken tyrants on the wheel, and made the world yield. At the same time I am embarrassed at many of the other details of my heritage. We have hurt people unnecessarily, killed and raped, we have damaged forests, poisoned rivers, waged war when there were other avenues. I like the idea that I can work my way out of poverty here, but I hate the idea that we idolize the rich when they put barriers in the path of those like me just because they can. It’s not the money, it’s the work that counts, but sometimes we forget that and those with less must school those with more. That we have done that and can do that is also part of my heritage and I am glad of it.

I am an American.

I am not bound by ritual. Tradition is valuable, history must never be forgotten, but as a starting point not a straitjacket. Those who wish to constrain me according to the incantations, ceremonies, and empty routines of disproven ideologies, debunked beliefs, and discredited authority are not my compatriots, nor do they understand the liberty which comes from an open mind amply armed with knowledge and fueled by a spirit of optimism and a fearless willingness to look into the new and make what is worthy in progress your own.

I am an American.

I do not need others to tell me who I am and how I should be what they think I should be. I elect my representatives. They work for me. They are employees. If I criticize them, I am not criticizing my country. If I call their judgment into question, I am not undermining America. If I am angry with the job they do, I do not hate my country. They should take their definition from me, not the other way around.

I am an American.

If my so-called leaders send soldiers in my name somewhere to do things of which I do not approve and I voice my disapproval, I am not insulting those soldiers or failing to support them. They did not send themselves to those places or tell themselves to do those things. My country has never asked one of its soldiers to kill innocents, torture people, lay waste to civilians, or otherwise perform illegal, unnecessary, or wrong deeds. Politicians do that and they are employees, they are not My Country. Greedy individuals do that, and they are not My Country. No one has the right to call me unpatriotic because I condemn politicians or businessmen for a war they make that I consider wrong, nor that I am not “supporting out troops” because I want them out of that situation and no longer misused by the narrow, blinkered, and all-too-often secret agendas of functionaries, bureaucrats, and bought stooges.

I am an American.

My success is my own, but it is impossible without the work done by my fellow Americans. I acknowledge that we make this country together or not at all and I have no reservations about crediting those whose labor has made my own possible or condemning those who seek to divide us so they can reap the plenty and pretend they made their success all by themselves.

I am an American.

Which means that by inheritance I am nearly everyone on this planet. I am not afraid of Others, or of The Other, and those who would seek to deny political and social rights to people who for whatever reason do not fit a particular box simply because they’re afraid of them do not speak for me. I reject superstition and embrace reason and as a child I learned that this is what should be the hallmark of an American, that while we never discard the lessons of the past nor do we let the fears and ignorance of the past dictate our future.

I am an American.

I accept the rule of law. This is a founding idea and I live accordingly, even if I dislike or disapprove of a given example. If so, then I embrace my right to try to change the law, but I will not break it thoughtlessly just because it inconveniences me or to simply prove my independence. My independence is likewise, like my Americanness, something I carry with me, inside. The forum of ideas is where we debate the virtues and vices of the framework of our society and I take it as given my right to participate. Cooperation is our strength, not blind commitment to standards poorly explained or half understood. Because we make the law, we determine its shape and limits. The more of us who participate, the better, otherwise we surrender majority rule to minority veto, and law becomes the playground of those who learn how to keep the rest of us out.

I am an American.

Such a thing was invented. It came out of change, it encompasses change, it uses change. Change is the only constant and too-tight a grip on that which is no longer meaningful is the beginning of stagnation and the end of that which makes us who we are. Change is annoying, inconvenient, sometimes maddening, but it is the only constant, so I welcome it and understand that the willingness to meet it and work with it defines us as much as our rivers, our mountains, our cities, our art. A fondness for particular times and places and periods is only natural—humans are nostalgic—but to try to freeze us as a people into one shape for all time is the surest way to destroy us.

I am an American.

I do not need others to be less so I can be more. I do not need others to lose so that I can win. I do not need to sabotage the success of others to guarantee my own. I do not have to take anything away from someone else in order to have more for myself.

America is for me—

My partner, my family, my friends, the books I love, the music I hear, the laughter of my neighbors, the grass and flowers of my garden, the conversations I have, the roads I travel, and the freedom I have to recognize and appreciate and enjoy all these things. I will defend it, I will fight anyone who tries to hurt it, but I will do it my own way, out of my own sentiments, for my own reasons. Others may have their reasons and sentiments, and may beat a different drum. That’s fine. That is their way and we may find common cause in some things. This, too, is America.

“All colors and blends of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It’s a breed — selected out by accident. And so we’re overbrave and overfearful — we’re kind and cruel as children. We’re overfriendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed. We’re oversentimental and realistic. We are mundane and materialistic — and do you know of any other nation that acts for ideals? We eat too much. We have no taste, no sense of proportion. We throw our energy about like waste. In the old lands they say of us that we go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening culture.”
John Steinbeck, East of Eden

“There’s the country of America, which you have to defend, but there’s also the idea of America. America is more than just a country, it’s an idea. An idea that’s supposed to be contagious.”
Bono

“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”
John F. Kennedy

“When an American says that he loves his country, he means not only that he loves the New England hills, the prairies glistening in the sun, the wide and rising plains, the great mountains, and the sea. He means that he loves an inner air, an inner light in which freedom lives and in which a man can draw the breath of self-respect.”
Adlai Stevenson

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