Evolution & Morality II

[The second part, still a repost.  Next week I’ll repost part three, and then on to something new.]

I’ve been prompted to do a follow-up on this by the events in Dover, PA and Kansas.  Not news anymore, but to recap, the trial in Dover over the school board’s insertion of Intelligent Design into public school science curriculum is over.  The judge won’t hand down his decision till January, probably, but in the immediate aftermath, the citizens of Dover ousted the entire school board and replaced them with less insidiously doctrinaire people.

I say insidious, because this can no longer be seen as well-intentioned people blundering into controversy unawares.  We’ve been having to put up with this crap now for a couple of decades at least, in Kansas back in the 90s, and the issue is well-enough known and the stakes thoroughly understood by enough folks on both sides that anyone moving to circumvent the Supreme Court decision (Edwards vs Aguillard, 1987) is doing so with the knowledge that they are being duplicitous.  They have decided that, as they cannot win their case on the basis of fact and reason, and since they believe they are right and everyone who disagrees with them is wrong, any tactic by which they may advance their cause is just fine.

Science, meanwhile, is hamstrung by its in-built integrity—not that scientists themselves are not often duplicitous or even insidious, but they work with a process that, sooner or later, outs the B.S.  This self-policing, self-correcting aspect is a point the Creationists seem to miss about science.  Or maybe they don’t, but they just don’t care.  Scientists, in other words, end up having to play by the rules, because the rules are well-defined and function well enough that fraud is inevitably discovered and error corrected.  Bad science doesn’t stand because of that process.

While it is true that there have been scientists whose work has been vilified by fellow scientists, this proves nothing about the nature of science as such.  Eventually, if their work is sound, they are vindicated by the very process that will then discredit that bad or incomplete science (or, more generally, dogged human stubborness against yielding to a new paradigm) blocking their work.  This has happened time and time again.

Likewise, it proves nothing to hold science up as some sort of religion with its own dogma, barring the radical and guarding the gates of orthodoxy like Cerberus, because in time the watchdogs are put down and good work has its day.  Consider the rather shameful episode of Immanuel Velikovsky, whose book World In Collision suffered censure and open censorship when it was published.  The scientific community reacted so negatively to the book that it went through its own period of HUAC-like stupidity in its treatment of Velikovsky.  Carl Sagan, in an exercise of integrity, righted this by having a forum of scientists give Velikovsky and his work serious consideration.  The result was the book Velikovsky Reconsidered, which is a collection of papers done on Velikovsky’s ideas.

Velikovsky was shown to be in error.

But some good science came out of the forum, most especially with regard to the planet Venus.

Point being, science changed its mind.

Religion can’t really do that.  At least, the religiously dogmatic can’t, not without throwing over their dogma and admitting what they believed was in error.  And that’s why it doesn’t mix with science.

On the opposite side of the Dover issue, Kansas once more entered the field by reinserting Intelligent Design in their curriculum and changing the description of science as it is to be taught in the schools along the way.

It prompts one to ask: What Is It With These People?

Now you must ask, then, which people am I talking about?

There are two elements involved in this specific issue that can’t get around each other.  The specific issue I refer to is the place of religion in public education.

One element—those who are pushing the Intelligent Design aka Creationism inclusion—believe that part of our problem today is a lack of religious instruction.  We have, they say, banned god from the classroom.  This has led to immorality and decay, degeneracy and national weakness.

The other element is comprised of those who adamantly refuse to allow religion into public schools at any level, anywhere.  They fuel the fires of the debate—the barred will clamor for inclusion till the gates break down.  This is Americanism at its core, we can’t deny it or avoid it and we try to maintain an exclusionary posture at our peril.  Because if we can’t hold those gates shut—and we can’t—when they do finally give way, we’ll have no control whatsoever on what comes through it.

I take issue with the false syllogism of the religious advocates that we are in the grip of immorality because of the ban on teaching religion in public schools.  I take issue with it because I can’t think of a single period in our history when we haven’t been in the grip of degeneracy and decay.  We know this because there isn’t a single period in our history when the critics of society haven’t loudly pointed this fact out to us.  We have always lived in a stew of sin and corruption.  Even when we did teach religion in the schools.  The presence of school prayer, catechism, evangelism, and god in the public schools has made no difference in the level of so-called immorality in our society.  None.  You can find tracts written at each decade of our nation’s history attesting to the fact that we are Sodom, we are Babylon, we are doomed.  Taking religion out of the public schools has had no real impact at all.

Now, it can be argued that the kinds of immorality have probably changed.  We didn’t have drug peddlers pushing Ecstacy to grade schoolers in 1890.

But wait a minute—a lot of that is simply opportunism.  Still, when you look at the culture at large, you can see that the roster of national sins has changed a bit.  Not much.  I’d argue that for a lot of people, things have improved, and perhaps we have a level of common morality more in evidence on the individual level today than ever before.  Just check the donations to charity, the kinds of charity being donated to, and the range of civil tolerance we experience today that was impossible to expect in, say, 1954.

So that argument, to anyone with any smattering of historical perspective, is patently false.

But there’s another argument that can be made to support a contention that religion ought to be included in school curriculum.  We pride ourselves on tolerance, and it is true, we can’t get around it, that the basic principles of tolerance in the West are fundamentally Christian principles.  Not church principles, but the ideas that came from Yeshua–Jesus, for those who don’t know who I mean.  In fact, the codification of tolerance has its earliest manifestation in religion—everywhere.  The idea that we should respect others, that we should regard our fellow creatures as no better or worse than ourselves, is a religious idea.

The irony, of course, is that secularists have in recent times been the best practitioners of it, at least in a public forum, and is lost on most religious ideologues.  Pat Robertson and the rest of his ilk wouldn’t be half so irked at Dover, PA, if they weren’t well aware of this seeming contradiction.  Consider this quote from the “illustrious pastor” on the occasion of the Dover decision:

“I’d like to say to the good citizens of Dover, if there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God. You just rejected him from your city, and don’t wonder why he hasn’t helped you when problems begin, if they begin, and I’m not saying they will. But if they do, just remember you just voted God out of your city. And if that’s the case, then don’t ask for his help, because he might not be there.”


But I do have a problem with banning religion from public education and it is that we live in a world of religion, and to ignore it is to invite the abuses of ignorance.  You could argue, I suppose, that it is desirable to “protect” children from strong ideologies until they are of an age and a sophistication not to be overwhelmed by them—but we certainly don’t do that with regards to other aspects of the world.  We underestimate both children’s’ capacity to handle complexity and our own ability to present a subject in such a way as to open a child’s mind to possibility and choice along with reason.

So I would put religion in school curriculum—as part of history (I don’t know how you teach about the Crusades and avoid deep religious discussions) and as a part of some form of civics.

This is unacceptable to the Creationist advocates.  They don’t want religion taught as a Subject, they want it taught as Truth.  They want it to have dominance over all other subjects.  To do this, though, would require a distortion of those other subjects, especially science.

Which brings the other element in as counter.  Those who would blindly bar religion in toto.  Seeing the intent of the first group, the latter, in an argument we have seen time and again in politics, claims that to let a little in is to eventually yield the field.  This is sometimes called the problem of the camel’s nose.  You can’t let the camel poke his nose into your tent, because before you know it the whole camel is in and you’re sleeping in the open desert.

So they sue and countersue and the country must stand by and watch as the issues mangle the subjects.

Now, I won’t be coy about where I stand.  Religion is not compatible with science.  Sorry, it just isn’t.  Faith is subverted by a process demanding proof, and science is nothing without that very process.  I think religion is both inevitable and unfortunate in this regard.  People seem to require it.  If we managed to stamp it out in one generation, the next would rediscover it.  It’s my opinion that religion is a kind of emergent property of communities.  There is not one culture on the planet ever found that lacked a religion.  In all the wild variety human creativity offers, they multiply, and appear as if out of nowhere.  The binding commonality of our humanity is indicated by the concerns all these religions share—where did we come from?  What is truth?  What shall we do?  What shall we not do?  Is there an afterlife?  Who are the gods and why do they have anything to do with us?

More than that, though, a religion is the strongest form of group identity.  Everyone believing the same thing, worshiping the same thing, claiming descent from ancestors who also believed and worshiped the same thing—when politics and economics change and even language is suspect one generation to the next, this is a powerful bond.

Of course, it’s based on faith as much as any other element of a religion—how do we know we believe the same way our great great grandparents did?—but the nature of faith being that which cannot be analyzed, proven, or disproved, the bond is potent and all but unassailable.

But it doesn’t stop at belief.  It spills over into everything else.  Not only do we believe like our distant forebears, we’re no different from them in any way!  There is a continuity of conscience and values and even physicality implicit in the religious view.  From Abraham to Jesus, The People did not change, outwardly or inwardly, except for the waxing and waning of their faith.  But they were in all things essentially the same people.  No discovery, no insight, no invention altered them qualitatively in any way.

And there seems to be some comfort in that.  Certainly a kind of validation.

That’s gone.

Enter the Industrial Revolution.  From the 18th Century till today, the one thing for certain is that we are never the same one generation to the next.

At least, that’s what it looks like.

Here’s where the core assault on Evolution enters.

First we realized that humans are just one more species on the fecund body of the Earth, biologically no better or worse than any other.  An opportunistic organism hell bent (he chooses his words carefully) on dominance of the biome through any means available, the first line of assault being reproduction.  We secured a position through a particularly large neocortex overlaid on a big brain, and after building cities and colonizing the entire globe, thought of ourselves in our fevered imagination as the ultimate pinnacle of creation—an idea we invented as well to explain the hierarchy we assumed to be “natural”, which idea itself is perverted by the notion of special creation, with human beings at the crest of it.  Our ideology itself was employed in the battle to dominate—our hubris is probably an evolutionary benefit, since it obliterates the kind of humility and sensibility that would check our nature-driven surge for dominance, a dominance not only over the so-called Animal Kingdoms, but over arbitrarily-designated “lesser” human breeds.

Right nasty piece of work.  When we understood that we were just part of nature and not the divinely-appointed landlords, it didn’t take long for some among us to start looking closely at the long trail of human history and trying to figure out alternative answers to the thorny questions.  Many were wrong.

But just questioning that continuity was a chancy practice and got a lot of individuals killed along the way.

Something was awry, though, because the animal kingdoms we thought we understood turned out to be a lot more…unique…than we suspected, and begged more questions than we’d been offering.

When Darwin came along with his little notion of natural selection, well, the whole thing revealed itself to those with clear eyes.  There was no “special creation”—the whole thing was a continuum, a ongoing round of cede and supercede, new species displacing old, whole genomes transforming, disappearing, transmuting.  The animal kingdoms we knew were johnny-come-latelys, emerged in the space left behind by far older kingdoms that had never know Humans at all—because we didn’t exist when they held sway.  Which meant that we were only another phase in an age-old process of change and replace and recombine and…evolving.

Which destroyed the cozy sense of eternal continuity we assumed for millennia.

Which has driven certain people crazy.

It amazes me that we still hear the rejection we heard in the 19th century and even in Dayton, TN—”I am not descended from an ape!”

The man in the 20th Century who came to exemplify the fundamentalist response to evolution, William Jennings Bryan, said in his famous Menace of Darwinism speech: “…our chief concern is in protecting man from the demoralization involved in accepting a brute ancestry…evolution in plant and animal life up to the highest form of animal might, if there were proof of it, be admitted without raising a presumption that would compel us to give a brute origin to man.”

As it has transpired in the course of the 20th Century, science has pretty well established that evolution occurs.  All the arguments mustered against it, from gaps in the fossil record to the intricacy of the eye and its impossibility of emerging by evolutionary process, have been answered.  We have ample evidence in the fossil record and are finding more all the time.  That is simply not an issue anymore.  The eye has been explained.  More than that, in the laboratory evolution has been witnessed on the single cell level for decades.  The only way to make sense of viral mutation is through an evolutionary model.  Humans themselves have been instrumental in evolutionary process through selective breeding of cattle, pets, and the manner in which we change environments and displace species.

Plus, we keep finding new species.  They are emerging all the time.

But the bone of contention (if you will allow me the pun) is with the descent of Man.

Up to the present day, beginning with Bryan, people have made a link between special creation and morality—as if without the hand of god having made us in a separate manner from all the rest of creation, we could not possibly evince a single moral principle.  I addressed this in the previous essay.  Based on a historical reading of our conduct as a species, there isn’t a shred of evidence to support the contention that more religion equates to more morality.

But that isn’t where all the fury at evolution is coming from, I think.  I think that’s a dodge.

The issue is obsolescence.

The view that religion gives us is that Man (humankind) was the last living thing created, and that it was an act of special creation, different from all the rest of the living world, and furthermore the model used was the Creator Himself.  The inescapable implication of this is that we—human beings—-are the pinnacle.  We’re It.  The Best.  The supreme, end result of six heady days of creative exuberance performed by a Being of Infinite power and knowledge and imagination.

Better could not be done.

Well.  If true, then Evolution is the democratic revolt dethroning us from that position.  Because evolution states that we’re just one more species among millions and we have as much chance of surviving to the end of time as the dinosaurs—which is, none to speak of.  We aren’t special.  We can be replaced, and, by the logic of evolution, will be.

The king has no throne.

Whether people consciously react to this or not is beside the point.  Unconsciously, I’m certain they do.

And some reject this process of replacement utterly.

We will not be made obsolete.  We will not be shoved off the top of the hill.  We will not be replaced.

Our provenance, as descended from a long, long line of other primates, must therefore be rejected, because to accept it is to accept the possibility of our being just a stop along the way to something else.  Not even, if we read Darwin correctly, something superior—just something else.  We can’t even look forward to a more human human.

The passion of rejection exhibited here suggests no less than a personal stake on the part of those who would see evolution denied.

In my humble opinion, this is pathetic.

There are always people who take credit for their ancestors’ accomplishments, people who rely on family name and honor to supply them with the dignity they otherwise haven’t earned.  For such people who get by on the stories of greatness achieved by grandparents or great grandparents, people like me—who really could care less what the family did a century ago—must appear odd.  To me, they appear ridiculous.  Likewise those who plead social incapacitation based on transgression done to forebears, as if the transgression had been done to them.  My name indicates a German origin.  That does not make me heir to the crimes of the Nazis or the absurdities of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Reich.  Nor does it suggest anything about my work ethic, my sense of humor, or my tendencies toward dress, decorum, or music.  Yet I have heard this kind of thing throughout my life.  “Oh, that’s the German in you!”

How?  I am an American by birth.  Characteristics that have to do with socialization do not transfer genetically—that’s Lamarckianism and it’s demonstrable false—yet there are people who assume they do.

All this is part and parcel of a process of borrowing self-worth—or special pleading —from lineage.  If that lineage is long and immutable, well…

But it’s not.  To pretend it is is a perspective born of centuries of human habit, passed from one generation to the next not by genetic processes but by the stories and customs we carry with us, handed down through families, towns, nations.

Yet there are American born Irish who will pick fights about slights done by the British against the Irish a hundred years ago.  Examples abound.  This is false self-importance, indulgence in claptrap.

And the granddaddy of such claptrap is Special Creation.

Ultimately, if it’s not true, then we’re responsible—utterly and alone—for our own situation.

I suppose that really frightens some people.

Evolution and Morality I

[This is another repost.  Some of the material in this is a bit dated, but the arguments are not.  In fact, with an approaching election, I think a lot of this needs be considered.  This battle will not go away.  There are three parts to it.  I’ll repost the others in due course.]

I stumbled this past Sunday morning on a preacher on television.  The reason I stopped to listen was that on the screen he was scrolling through a litany of famous scientists, their fields and contributions, and noting that each was a Great Christian.  Then the preacher–I don’t know who he was, sorry–ended his litany by making the claim that science and religion are inextricably linked, that they must have each other to work, that there is no dispute between them–

–and that evolution is wrong.

This was a week after I listened to an NPR interview with Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in which he makes the claim that it is vital to settle this question of where “we” (meaning humans) came from because if evolution were true, then we would have no basis for morality.

This is one of the most perverse false syllogisms I have ever heard, and it baffles me no end.  Underlying it is the assumption that morality only ever comes from a god, that without a deity we are too dumb, puerile, self-serving, and just plain hopeless to ever do anything right–for ourselves on anyone else.  That atheists are a priori immoral and that evolutionists, who reject special creation, are necessarily atheists, and therefore, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, likewise immoral.  They can’t help it.  They have no god giving them direction.

A minute of clear thought shows how this is substantively untrue.  A few more minutes and you might begin to see that this is one of the foulest assaults on our civilization ever mounted.  By linking the two things in this way, you automatically create a Sisyphean task for anyone who doesn’t fit the fundamentalist christian mold.  Not only do we have to demonstrate how such arguments are false, we must first demonstrate how we have a legitimate basis from which to make our counter argument, a basis automatically designated immoral, godless, groundless…

Even christians should be afraid of this.  The logical result following from it is to set a standard from which one may never deviate without fear of being labeled atheist and moral threat.  It shuts the door on any possibility of examining the universe in new ways, discovering new explanations for existence, and indulging in the wonder of examining life.

One hesitates to engage the argument because it seems so infantile.  But when someone of Santorum’s stature makes such pronouncements—along with all his other rants about homosexuality, family planning, and the Liberal Agenda—it’s not a crackpot on the corner standing on his soapbox that one can ignore, though ignore him we should.

What the basic argument comes down to is this: god—in this instance the christian god—supposedly created Everything.  By his will alone the universe exists and all that is in it.  By his will alone we strive to be Good.  That without him, we have no reason to be Good.  That, contrary to this, evolution proposes that the universe just Happened and everything in it arose by processes independent of conscious intent.  And therefore, as this is an impersonal process, all the creatures within the universe have de facto no basis for being Good.  Morality, therefore, cannot pertain and we would all be lost.

So.  The question comes to mind: if tomorrow it was demonstrated beyond any possibility of counter argument that god was gone—dead, left the building, or never existed—would you, Mr. Santorum, embark on a life of debauchery and self-satiation?  Would you rape?  Take drugs?  Go on a drinking binge?  Steal, murder, slander, and otherwise let your barely-suppressed immoral urges have free rein?

I doubt it.  You’ve grown up living according to certain standards, standards which I’m sure you have found useful simply on the face of them, regardless of their provenance.

Of course, if I’m wrong, and you would go on a major party rampage, flouting every standard you ever had, I would then ask: Why?  Didn’t you understand the utility of those standards?  Or are you so corrupt to begin with that you require divine muzzling?  (If that’s the case, why would anyone  have elected you in the first place?)

You have to make the argument that morality cannot exist outside a religious context, which is demonstrably untrue.  No, let me be clearer—it’s flat wrong.  Clearer still—that’s a lie.  It’s slander, in fact.

But to make the case we have to ask a more fundamental question: what is morality?

Depends who you ask, but the most common feature of any explanation is that Morality is the impulse to live in accordance with beneficial principles.  Maybe that’s a bit dry, but I think it’s accurate.  Ethics represents a codified approach to appropriate living within a community, and more often than not entails negotiations about terms of interaction.  These are processes and can vary from place to place, culture to culture, time to time.  What is ethical now was not always and what was ethical once is often quaint or repugnant now.

My Oxford Companion to Philosophy, interestingly, doesn’t have one segment on “morality” but rather several segments on the various aspects of it—moral judgment, sexual morality, slave morality, morality and art, etc.  A common theme in all is that the person acting from a moral sense does not see such action—or the necessity for such action—as optional.  In other words, it is a given that morality defines what ought to be done regardless of circumstance.  Kant called this the Categorical Imperative.

Ethics, on the other hand, is more conditional.  Ethics gives leave to weigh issues and choose among options which might be appropriate.  In our traditions, ethics is informed by morality, but often there is a break point between them.  For instance, morally one can argue that slavery is under no circumstances a moral activity.  But in the face of it, when it becomes a question of property rights and restitution to those who have paid out money, an ethical barrier may arise to freeing slaves.  (Absurd, you may say, yet a lot of sound jurisprudence was once based on the ethics of universal manumission.)
To compound that particular argument, though, if the moral standard is taken and the slaves are free, are we not then morally obligated to accommodate those newly-freed persons and make sure they can survive and flourish?  Historically, there is no moral imperative to secure the well-being of disconnected groups, even while one could argue that ethically it would be prudent to do all one could to alleviate the worst consequences of a sudden social transition.  Certainly those who have lost their property may feel no obligation to provide benefit to the group(s) responsible for their loss of property, since, in their view, they have been victims of robbery, and there is a moral imperative against that.  Ergo, the situation remains in flux and no clear hierarchy of action emerges that might be called prescriptive—namely, free the slaves, educate and house them, find a place or circumstance under which they may assume acceptable lives

You can see how this leads into a tangle of definitions and clashes of will.

The fact is, slavery did exist, and existed among people who counted themselves in all other regards among the most moral (i.e. religious) people on the planet.  Others no less moral made sound arguments against slavery, condemning it as fundamentally immoral, even though passages of Paul in the New Testament could be found that seemed to support slavery.  If in the foundational book of christianity one could not find a clear statement of moral imperative about this issue—written by those presumably close to the source—then how are those two millennia removed supposed to figure it out?

In the hindsight of 150 years, it is clear that the ethical arguments against slavery—namely, that it is ultimately an unsupportable institution that eventually will damage the community indulging it—offers a more sound critique and standard that the muddied waters of so-called morality ever did.

My point is, that if morality is supposed to be god’s law written in the heart for all to know, then those who need it most often seem to be functionally illiterate.  It does not do what it is supposed to do.

At least, not the way those pushing the fundamentalist argument suggest it does.

At this point I should be clear: do I believe there is such a thing as morality?


Do I believe it is divine in nature and origin?


We have to figure it out just like we have to figure everything else out.  Moral law is a result of millennia of humans trying to work out what is right and what is wrong universally.  You can see the attempts, the rough drafts, the marked-out texts, the failed experiments strewn through history.

We still don’t have it right.

The reason we don’t, I think, is because we keep expecting it to come from without.  We’re still waiting, many of us, for god to send a clearer, revised version of the ten commandments.  Anything short of that is just ethics and we’ve seen where that gets us.

But we’ve also seen where a reliance on morality can get us.  Just about in the same sort of fixes.

Kant, among others, wanted to find a method of defining universal principles that could be held to be Morals.  The categorical imperative, fine tool that it is, fails to do this.  What it does do is allow us to determine what is not universalizable, and therefore not a moral principle.

Morality shares in common an attribute held by both science fiction and pornography–that is, people know what it is when they see it, but find it next to impossible to define concretely.  (Why, for example, is Lady Chatterly’s Lover considered literature and Debbie Does Dallas pornography?  Granted, some people consider the former to be pornography as well, but barring the willfully blind who refuse to look at it, there is a clear difference between the two—but how to describe that difference in moral terms?)  Essentially, it is a category of judgment concerning things that ought not to be negotiable.  Things one should or should not do under any circumstances.  What we have learned from history (if nothing else) is that Ecclesiastes was wrong–there are always new things, and most of them come in the form of unpredicted circumstances.  The 20th Century—and now the 21st —have handed us more of them in more unexpected ways than any other time.

The sanctity of marriage is a case in point.  Marriage—never mind how it has actually played out—is a bulwark against illegitimacy.  People have sex.  It’s natural.  We have to do it in order to survive as a species, but the consequences—babies—are expensive and need tending.  Ergo, marriage.  The so-called family unit.  In its ideal formation, it’s a fine notion.  But very little in human activity is ideal.  There are always people—and circumstances—that simply won’t conform to our solutions.  (Note also that “legitimacy” concerning progeny is not a natural idea—it is a human one.  Nowhere else in the animal kingdom does one see any evidence of concern over the “legal” status of the parents.  Legitimacy is not about caring for the child—it is about inheritance, and, among those with no property to inherit, an easy yardstick to determine “suitability”, whatever that means.  Legitimacy, therefore, is also what we say it is when we point at it.)

Nevertheless, the rule was for centuries that before you can (legally) have sex, you have to get married.

Birth control methods were notoriously fickle and unreliable for centuries before the advent of vulcanized rubber.  There simply was no way to avoid marriage under most conditions, except through a life of celibacy (chiefly affecting women–men always screwed around, stated vows notwithstanding) or ignominy—running from ones responsibilities.  Not a good lifestyle, really.

But now Circumstance—and human ingenuity—have handed us a number of practical methods to prevent unwanted pregnancy.

So why do we have to get married in order to have sex?  And if the consequences are containable, where’s the downside?

Well, there are downsides, but you see my point.  Circumstances changed.  And we can now see that a hard and fast rule that had a certain practical utility for a long long time, has become an option for some, in fact a burden to many, and begs the question of its ultimate utility.

It is optional.

Which drives a certain crowd nuts.

The same argument can be made in many instances.  Racial equality is a biggie.  Education is another one.

But the one that drives me to distraction—at least in the way it’s batted about in public discourse—is the quandary over killing.

Now here’s an instance where morality and ethics part company in so many ways it’s laughable, and where the loudest proponents of so-called Moral Virtue trip over themselves so often it amazes me they can stand and walk across a room.

Thou Shalt Not Kill.  Commandment number six.

There was an academic debate over whether or not the word is “kill” or “murder”.  If it could be settled, then the arguments engendered under this commandment might clarify a bit, but the last I heard people still opted to say “kill”, which if followed strictly (religiously) would make christians into Hindus, at least concerning the hierarchy of life.

The taking of other human lives is what concerns this essay, though, so let’s stick with that rather than add the murk of vegan morality.

Clearly, Yahweh didn’t mean it.  At least, according to the Old Testament, after handing that dictate down, he then named as his favorites some of history’s great butchers.  Joshua, Saul, David, Samson, Tobit.  David in particular, setting aside the whole issue of military actions, qualifies as a murderer.  He manipulated the rosters of troops so Uriah died and David could make his move on Bathsheba.  So not only a murderer, but an adulterer.

It can be argued, of course, that there was a war on, and Uriah might have died anyway.  That’s beside the point.  David intentionally put him in harm’s way to achieve that end.  If Uriah had lived, what next?  But he didn’t.  David knew the odds and relied on them.  That’s murder.

(You could make a larger point about military action in general—when is an officer/leader guilty of murder and when is it just the outcome of the vicissitudes of war?  Was Robert E. Lee a murderer when he ordered Pickett’s Charge?  Everyone—including, apparently, Lee—knew it would fail.)

So Yahweh plays favorites.  You can find many instances in Scripture where these hard and fast rules of behavior—morals—are set aside because Yahweh decided they didn’t apply in a given instance.  So his own laws he deployed according to Circumstance, more like ethics than morality.  (Abraham knew it was immoral—heinous indeed—to be ordered to kill Isaac.  He was going to do it anyway.  Yahweh was “testing him”.  One reading of that is, Abraham holds loyalty to Yahweh higher than all else, which is the traditional reading.  My take on it was that he failed.  The law obviously had not “taken root” in his heart.  The test was whether or not he could make moral judgments and act on them regardless of circumstance.  But of course that’s not a popular reading.  However, if a moral virtue is to have the force claimed for it, shouldn’t it apply no matter who is telling you different?)

Killing is one of those acts which falls into a category of choices which may from time to time be necessary—but can never be defended as moral.  Self defense is a case in point.  Your life or the life of your loved one is under imminent threat.  You kill to end the threat.  We classify it legally as justifiable homicide in those instances where clearly the choice came down to you or them.

Does that redefine the act as moral?

No, categorically not.

But is it therefore immoral?

Maybe.  It depends on how it stacks up against your own metric.  You may do it anyway and then loathe yourself for committing an immoral act.  Yet to not do it, to abide by your own moral code, would have meant the sacrifice of your life—which is a legitimate trade—or someone else’s, which is not yours to weigh.

Then of course there’s the instance of war.  What is it in the decree of your state that makes killing suddenly “all right”?  Or at least acceptable?  If, to be a moral law, an action is wrong under any and all circumstances, from where does a state derive the authority to set such law aside in the instance of war?  And how can that decision be relevant to your own personal moral code?

If, as seems to be the assertion by the chief purveyors of a “return to moral values”, morality is an absolute standard, then by what authority do some of these same people claim to establish exceptions to that standard—which would make it somewhat less than absolute?


Easy answer, complex phenomenon.  Obviously, absolute standards will get you in trouble just as quickly and thickly as no standards at all.  At least, they will if your notion of a standard is a hard and fast rule, like Thou Shalt Not Kill.

Consider: a rule like that doesn’t give leeway to circumstance.  It’s a Law.  You may not violate it.  Strict adherence means you will find yourself in positions where killing may be the only way to survive and you will therefore not survive.

What is the point of handing down such rules to people who will not survive?

This quickly becomes redundant.  The blatant impossibility of living by absolute codes of conducts undoes the asserted necessity of them.  We get into a round of begging exceptions which are only practical and often necessary to the survival of the species.

(Let’s take a biggie—incest.  Now I’m not about to advocate it, but there’s a Bible story* that has always bothered me: Lot’s daughters.  Here in this one saga we see all manner of exception to hard and fast moral conduct being indulged.  The part of the story that gets me, though—never mind the mass destruction of two cities who had no warning and never knew they were on trial—is the aftermath, when Lot and his two daughters hide in a cave.  Genesis 19: 30-38.  They became the mothers of two tribes, which fared well, and no taint of the sin of incest followed them.  Now, they seemed to think the world was over, and that they had some responsibility to repopulate—circumstance, survival of the species.  But these were also the two Lot had offered to the mob in Sodom.  The question is: is incest immoral or not?  In point of fact, it’s not listed in the Ten Commandments.  Adultery is a question of marital priority.  The ten commandments hold forth on covetousness, but actually don’t  say a lot about premarital sex.  All the prohibitions about that come from the long, long list of proscriptions and rules in Leviticus, and we tend to pick and choose among them as suits our circumstance.  But if incest does represent a moral proscription, why the exception here?  In fact, it seems that the ban on  incest is a biologically determined behavioral pattern which does not necessarily apply to blood relations.  There is something called the Westermarck Effect (Edward Alexander Westermarck), which showed that the sharing of living quarters from birth to a certain age seemed to establish a later psychological barrier to sexual interest.  This applies to adopted children as well as family members and, in the instance of those separated at birth, showed no barrier later in life.  It is, apparently, an Evolved  psychobiological condition, which brings me to one of the main points of this essay.)

The tangle over what constitutes a moral principle, as opposed to ethical standards and practice, may well be a problem of language.  How to describe an effect that cannot be universally codified.  Law is, on one level, all about this problem.  Something occurs which we know is wrong, but attempts to define why it is wrong—and wrong in all instances—fail.  Does that failure mean the thing done is not wrong?  Maybe.  Maybe it’s just the circumstances around it that conspire to make it wrong.  (For instance, Speculation.  In times of prosperity, no one sees this as particularly heinous, but when economic conditions are constrained, speculation becomes a matter of condemnation.)

But if that’s the case, then is it fair to say that there are no moral standards?

No.  Because we know better.  We just can’t quite describe it.

As in the case of the Westermarck Effect, however, it may be that moral standards are what might be called deep programming.  Psychobiological structures which have become part of our operating systems over time.

In other words, they are standards which have evolved.

Clearly, we can see this in terms of sociology.  What was once morally acceptable is not now, and perhaps vice versa.  Why?  If a standard is a god-given, absolute imprint, then there would be no shift, no reassessment.

In some ways, there hasn’t been.  We’re still arguing over some of the same issues now as we were four thousand years ago.  This makes sense because societies have to have standards just to survive.  People have to get along with each other, especially when shoved into close proximity in cities.  It is the effects of human interaction that must be managed, and we rely on the idea of a moral code to underpin the surface rules.  We do these things because they are good, we do not do these other things because they are bad.

Being reasonable about this doesn’t seem sufficient inducement for many people.  So we bring in a threat.  Do this or else.  The Or Else, to be truly effective, needs something that transcends the day to day.  So, god.

Not a new argument, but I haven’t heard a sound counter argument yet—except this debate over the provenance of morality.

So we return to the assertion made by the far right that if Evolution is true, then there is no basis for morality.

In fact, I suspect that the reverse is true.  Yahweh–our example here in the West–has a history of playing fast and loose with his own moral codes.  This actually creates an unreliable basis for our own behavior.  If it’s okay for god, why shouldn’t I?  The old “do as I say not as I do” idea that backfires on parents all the time.  The Greeks understood that the gods were a fickle bunch of unruly, all-powerful, self-indulgent forces that had to be appeased.  Law had to come from Man.

There’s some suggestion that this was the original idea in the Torah.  Christian editors re-ordered the Old Testament Books so that the prophetic books appear right before the birth of Yeshua, but the traditional arrangement has the prophets disappearing about when people start fending for themselves.  Yahweh appears less and less as the books progress.

Okay, I’ve danced around this for a while so I could lay the groundwork for my main point.

A moral standard is not a set of rules.  The rules, rather, measure themselves according to the standard, which is an inbred compass that allows us to make judgments from one situation to the next.  It is just that—a compass.  A compass points—it doesn’t tell what will be there when you follow it to a destination.  It says “This Way Is North” but it doesn’t tell you what North means or what to expect from North.  It doesn’t even say how to get to North.  But it will tell you when you’re not going North.  It doesn’t say to us that “this is what is always wrong” and “this is what is always right”.  Instead, it says there is a wrong and there is a right, but you won’t know it until you come into a situation and assess it.  You can’t say killing is always wrong.  You can’t say sex outside marriage is always wrong.  You can’t say working on a certain day is always wrong.  Life doesn’t hand us conditions in which we can make those sorts of absolute pronouncements.  Rather, it’s a case by case process, which means we have to think it through.

But the standard has apparently been brought with us, wired into our deep psyches by ages and ages of experience, which has changed and modified over time.

It has evolved.

So it seems that if evolution is true, it is demonstrated by the fact that we have a moral standard.  Morality is the result of long processes of learning and incorporating that learning into a mechanism whereby we can make decisions for the well-being of the species and the individual as circumstance requires.  Quite the reverse of the Right’s assertion would appear to be the case—that if evolution is wrong, then we have no basis for morality.

So by teaching evolution—combined with, say, cultural anthropology—we can discuss and disseminate a sound moral standard, one with an actual basis in nature.  Not something dependent on a supernatural force that, if the stories are to be believed, breaks its own rules regularly.

It kinda makes you wonder.

I hope.

* You may ask why I keep picking on the Bible here.  Are there not other holy writs wherein these examples might be found and pounced upon?  Sure.  But we here in this country, for the time being, base our haggling over this issue on the so-called Judeo-Christian Ethic.  People who would tell me how to live rely on the Bible as their source of authority.  So, that’s what I’ll pick on here.

Single Issue Anyone?

With the possible spoiler of Mike Huckabee, it’s clear that John McCain is set to be the candidate the Democrats need to beat in November.  The irony of the ongoing battle between Hilary and Obama is that, policy-wise, they just aren’t that different.  There were some real differences between the Republicans, but those differences are not what McCain seems to be gearing up to run on.  He is all about Iraq.

McCain has to convince hardline conservatives that he’s their guy.  Why?  Because he has occasionally backed some responsible legislation, like McCain-Feingold.  He refused to sugarcoat our waning industrial possibilities while campaigning in Michigan.  He has spoken positively about amnesty programs for illegal immigrants.  He has not always been a friend to Big Business.  True Red Republicans of the Bush League see the potential for fiscal treason in McCain—that he might raise taxes, control campaign spending, or propose, back, and sign Democratic-sounding legislation that would take the country toward *gasp* Socialism.

I have a hard time squaring complaints from anyone that McCain is somehow not a fiscal conservative when Bush just put forward a three-point-one TRILLION dollar budget (with the largest slice for defense spending since WWII).  It just goes to show, all the rhetoric about Democratic profligacy is really just a complaint that the Dems spend the money on things the Republicans don’t like.  It’s not the money, it’s the programs.

Setting that aside, though, McCain obviously doesn’t think he can sway them all.  So he’s about to start campaigning hard on the pitfalls of an Iraq withdrawal.  I will wait for the P-word to rear its ugly torso—Patriotism.  The suggestion will be made that anyone wishing to pull out it somehow not patriotic.  We saw this under Bush, aspersions cats on some of the most loyal, patriotic, and demonstrably courageous people who suggested that maybe this war was a bad idea and that, furthermore, we more or less screwed it up by going in blind, deaf, and predetermined.

I hear echoes of the Sixties all over again, and of all the people who should know better, it is John McCain.  (“Pull out…doesn’t sound manly to me, Bub.  I say leave it in there till the job is done and they’re thoroughly messed up.”)

The problem is, this may well play for the American voter.  When we have serious doubts, we tend to stick with what we’re doing rather than risk change.  We have to have our faces rubbed in the muck of bad decision-making before we finally say—in sufficient numbers to matter—enough is enough.  I am not sanguine about the political maturity of the American people.

And the thing is, we aren’t getting our faces rubbed in it.  We’re adapting.  Gasoline is high, the American industrial base is shrinking, we have infrastructure problems galore, but we making accommodations and doing fine, thank you.  People complain, but by and large we haven’t actually lost anything that matters.  So much of this debate is still in the realm of hypotheticals, theories, ideas, and potentials.

So we look to the Democratic candidates and what do we see?  One old school politician who would probably do an fine enough job and maybe make a few worthwhile changes, mainly around the edges, and one young firebrand who is promising Big Changes.  And a serious look at their policies shows that, really, they differ by degrees, not ideas.  It’s going to devolve into a popularity and demographics battle.  Which barrier do we want to break first?  Gender or race?  And underlying that, is the question no one wants to ask:  does it really matter anymore?

In my misbegotten youth, I used to be what they call a Single Issue Voter.  Was a time I voted against anyone who wanted to erode the Second Amendment.  Yes, I was one of those Right to Bear Arms purists.  I had bought into the argument that an armed populace kept the government in line and the first step towards tyranny is to disarm the population at large.  There’s truth to that in history, but today, here, in this country, it’s a rather weak argument.  Power doesn’t work that way.  Not to say it couldn’t, but for now it simply doesn’t.

I could also argue that anyone wishing to tamper with the Constitution was de facto untrustworthy.  Which may also be true.  People doing good for me whether I want it or not is loathesome.  Make the subject anything but guns and you see this immediately.

But the truth is, single issue voting only means you’re not informed, interested, or intellectually capable of understanding multiple issues.  Or it means you don’t care about anything else, which is just as bad.  It is stupid.

As it has transpired, most of the Second Amendment purists voted into office in the last forty years have also brought with them a whole suite of ideologies I cannot abide.  They are, many of them, the natural constituency of the George W. Bush League.  That single issue—preserving an unquestioned right to own, carry, and by implication use something which I, in fact, do not own or carry—comes packaged with people whose other policy positions I find absurd or dangerous.

The word Balance comes to mind.  Tricky at the best of times.

McCain will campaign on a single issue.  Oh, there will be other policy positions he’ll talk about and want to deal with, but at present it looks like he’s going to threaten America with the awful prospect of “pulling out” if we vote for the Democrats.  He will polarize people over a Single Issue that will push all the rest to the side in an emotional gambit to convince us to—wait for it, he may yet use the phrase—Stay The Course.

In such an environment, the first casualty is reason.  You can’t even get close to truth without that.

I would really like to see the two Democratic front-runners make a deal, put together a ticket that can roll over this irrationalism.  The Republicans are once again demonstrating their major strength—they’re forming ranks and closing up behind a candidate and they will see it through as a group.  For a bunch of people who profess to believe in American Individuality, they sure can cast it aside quickly enough for their Cause.  Democrats traditionally devour each other.

The one factor we have left to see whether McCain has a reasonable shot or not is who he picks as a running mate.  Because that will indicate who he thinks his successor will be, ought to be.  As it appears right now, if Hilary and Obama made a deal and ran together, it would be the best of all possible worlds.  Either one of them is acceptable to me.

I suppose I should say whether I think we should get out of Iraq.  Saying— believing—that we  should never have gone in to begin with is not the same thing.  Now it would be like making a mess of a paraplegic’s kitchen, then leaving without cleaning up the mess.  So I guess I’m forced into the opinion that we would be ill-advised to simply pull out until Iraq really does have a security base that works well enough.  Otherwise, they will be divvied up by the various factions outside their borders.  Iran has, in fact, an old score to settle, and they are more dangerous to future peace in the region than Iraq ever was.  Saddam ultimately was just greedy.  The Iranian hierarchy are Inspired.

But that doesn’t mean I’d vote for John McCain—all the other things he’s bringing to the table are things I do not really support.

Single Issue Voting is for morons.

Reality Check

Even in something I don’t give much of a damn about, it’s nice to see the underdog come out on top.  With regard to my previous post, well, so the Perfect Team turned out not to be so perfect, and the Giants won the Super Bowl.  That’s nice.  The major point of the post still stands, and I won’t change it to match current reality.

So congratulations to the boys from New York.

Now, since it’s still February—winter—why don’t we all, even the now exhausted Sports Fans, read a book…?

Super Bull

(When I changed the website and put this one up, my original Distal Muse section went away. I’d put up a number of essays and rants that I think were pretty worthwhile. Rather than try to put them here, backdating them, I’ve decided to repost them occasionally. I cannot help but take advantage of the irony of this repost, which is a few years old. Despite the somewhat dated references, I still feel this way, so in celebration of another American Sports Panegyric, I give you Super Bull.)

I understand the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl. And that Janet Jackson flashed her breast on national television. Much debate is raging over the latter.
The last time I was actively aware of the New England Patriots, they were under scrutiny for collectively harassing a female reporter in a “locker room incident.”

Somehow the two seem to be related, but I’m not sure how.

An acquaintance asked me a while ago–last month?–if I intended to watch the play-offs and I responded–automatically and immediately–with “what play-offs?”

Such honesty can get you seriously dissed in this country. But, yes, Virginia, there are people in the United States who know virtually nothing about pro sports. Or semi-pro. Or amateur. Nothing about sports.

When the Cardinals (my home team) are in the play-offs or whatever, heading for a pennant–which they do more regularly than I care to recall–I suffer at work, because suddenly none of the radios are playing music, but carrying the do-or-die commentary on the day’s Game. People move about rivetted. They have a glazed look in their eyes. I’ve seen that look in others–religious fanatics in the grip of glossolalia.

I don’t get it.

No, wait. Let me be clearer. I don’t GET IT!

Is it possible to grow up in this culture and not have an appreciation for athletics? Sure, but that’s not what I don’t get. And for the most part, I’m not sure most sports fans have such an appreciation themselves. I mean, I don’t think all those people who tuned in to watch the New England Patriots take another Super Bowl championship appreciate athletics. They are something other than connoisseurs of physical ability. They are Sports Fans.

Let me expound. (I’m going to anyway. That’s what this page is for, expounding.)

My father was not a Sports Fan. We did not watch the Big Game, he did not encourage me to play Little League, there was almost never any discussion in my house about who was winning what title. The first time I recall sports as a topic was when Cassius Clay (in the process of becoming Mohammed Ali) went to jail for refusing the draft. As you may imagine, the conversation was not about boxing.

Consequently, other things dominated my childhood and adolescence. As I’ve written elsewhere, this led to a very strained relationship with my peers. I was not an athletic child, although I wasn’t sickly, either. I ran and played as full-out as anyone. I lacked Grace.

War games were my big thing. I was an early Civil War buff and I was fascinated by World War II. My heroes included adventure movie actors–Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas–and the ability to do meant as much if not more than the ability to think. It wasn’t an aversion to the physical that isolated me. It was an aversion to sports.

Well, what became an aversion. To be honest, I gave it a try. Half-heartedly, I suppose. In retrospect, I lacked the fervor, the fire in the belly, as it were. I was not a True Believer.

Now, as I’ve also written elsewhere, I was not a particularly strong child. I was probably underweight, and I was certainly uncoordinated, but then so were many of my peers. The thing that seemed to work against me most was my active imagination. I was an early lover of SF and adventure stories and I was reading before I got into school. I wanted to be Superman or Batman, Davy Crockett, The Fighting O’Flynn, the Crimson Pirate, Scaramouche. All my major interests could be indulged privately–I was, as they say, very much In My Own Head. Which meant that I didn’t get a lot of practice playing with others. Not that I didn’t want to, mind you.

But I was a wimp. One of those annoying kids who is absolutely pain intolerant. I fairly quickly became the favorite target of all the bullies, then the wannabe bullies. It was easy to make me cry and that seems to delight children of a certain mindset–a fact of life which all the reasoned examination of the tragedy at Columbine has failed to bring to the fore.

The result was, when it came to anything physical, I was the last one chosen for the teams. Being ostracized will put a damper on ones sense of “team spirit”–it didn’t matter that the few times I _did_ end up on a team, I did okay. I didn’t do okay enough.
But the real problem over time was my complete lack of immersion in sports as national pastime. It’s like religion. The old saying about the Catholics was that “if we have them till they are seven, they are ours for life” seems to apply to sports doubly so. As I said, in my house, sports was just a non-issue.

(As an aside–I said I was a WWII buff. For a time, there was a kind of story that fascinated television and movie makers–not a lot, but it came up–of the period during the Battle of the Bulge when Germans infiltrated American lines in American uniforms and speaking flawless english. The way to find out that they were spies was to find out if they knew who had won the last World Series. Obviously, a “real American” would know. I couldn’t help but think that if I’d been there then, they’d have shot me as a spy. But it is the unquestioned assumption that every America knows such things that I’m addressing–partly–in this tirade.)

My father, I have to say here, was not a physical wimp. Quite the contrary. And it was a real problem for me later, living up to that, along with all the other aspects of him that I measured myself against. But my dad, as a young man, was I believe the strongest, most agile man I have ever known. We’re roughly the same size now–five’six, one-hundred-sixty pounds–but pound for pound, he was incredible. If he had been any taller, you’d have called him wiry. Hands like vice grips. (One time we caught some kids stealing stuff out of our car. A wild chase ensued. I saw my dad catch one of them in the alley. The kid was half a head taller than my dad, heavier, but it didn’t matter. Dad grabbed his belt in one hand and lifted this kid off his feet and put him against a garage door and held him there.) I say this to point out that I did not grow up in a house of intellectual milquetoasts where the heaviest thing ever picked up was a dictionary.

My grandfather, Bill Driskell, on the other hand, was a absolute devotee to baseball. It was his passion. As he grew older, it grew stronger. I remember one time coming into his room and finding him watching a game on tv, listening to another on one radio, and a third on a small transistor. Or it might have been two commentators on different stations for the same game, I don’t know. But this was devotion! He loved it and could give you stats going back to the 30s.

I didn’t hang around with him enough to become infected.

The thing was, outside of literature and movies, I didn’t really give much of a damn about the world around me. It wasn’t just sports. But nobody seemed to give much of a damn about the other things I didn’t know.

So basically, I grew up wondering what all the fuss was about.

I tried out for basketball in grade school. Despite the fact that I was agile and fairly adept at making baskets, I failed to make the cut. Years later I asked why and was told that when I approached the basket to shoot I tended to jump in such a way that it appeared that I was kicking myself in the ass. One of the coaches told me that. I don’t know if he was kidding or what, but basically it was rejection by virtue of lack of grace.

I discovered in boy scouts that I could hit pretty well in softball. I could also run like a jackrabbit (from years of running from bullies). What turned me off was bad fielding and the subsequent humiliation by members of my own team when they held me up to ridicule. I wasn’t invested enough in the game to put up with it, so I left.

My freshman year of high school, the track coach saw me nearly beat his star sprinter in the 50 yard dash and tried to enlist me onto the track team. I was not interested. For the rest of that year I was subjected to periodic attacks by him and other members of the track team beginning with long talks about school pride and team spirit and ending up with the coach suggesting that I must be homosexual to not want to participate in sports. This was also the year I began to see how athletes are venerated in schools. In my junior year I had the temerity to ask a cheerleader out on a date. Of course she said no, I don’t think I expected otherwise, but it didn’t end there. A few days later I was cornered by three football players and told in no uncertain terms that the cheerleaders were off-limits to anyone but the team members–that the cheerleaders “are ours, asshole, so you stay away.”

By the time I was a senior in high school, I understood what was going on. I didn’t, however, realize just how deep it went in society at large. I mistakenly assumed that this obsession with sports was a phase of adolescence and that adults possessed more perspective.

Boy, was I wrong.

I think our admiration of sports figures is partly a confusion over the value of attributes.

How’s that?

Well, it goes back to Plato…

Maybe that’s too far. I believe it’s part of the problem we’ve had since the dawn of the Enlightenment, but most especially since Darwin pretty much brushed special creation off the stage. Empiricism versus Platonic Rationalism. Wherever you wish to point as the start of the discord, it basically amounts to this:

Some people want to believe that “character” is an innate quality, something we are all born with, and only modify it over time. “Goodness” then becomes an irreducible trait which one possesses by virtue of being born that way, like a “talent.”

Others of course think this is all b.s. and that all traits are learned–i.e. acquired–over time, and that we learn to be good–or bad–as the case may be.

The short of it is, Plato believed (as expressed in The Republic) that people were born to what they naturally are–there are people of brass, people of silver, people of gold, and none of them can change what they were born to because these qualities are innate. This is the thinking that goes to ethnicity as a thing unto itself, regardless of culture–the Greeks are Greeks, whether raised by Romans, Britons, Germans, or Persians, and so on with the other “races” and that the defining racial trait comes out regardless of upbringing. The idea of innate qualities, biologically determined, suffuses our jokes and our prejudices. Christianized Jews under Hitler were exterminated because of their inherent Jewishness, and the master race was something bred.

Do we think like this today?

Not overtly. We’ve embraced the nurture over nature model for the most part. But there’s still an atavistic strain of assessment that distrusts learning. It expresses itself in the valuation of physical prowess over intellectual prowess that permeates our culture.

And nowhere is it more perversely entrenched than in athletics.

Not athletics as the physical side of living but in athletics as our national religion.

Which is what it is, you know.

We cling to the separation clause of the First Amendment not because we understand the intellectual and social ramifications of it, but because we as a nation implicitly realize that we already have a national religion.


(Excuse me? I hear people say…certainly.)

Let me state here that I think athletics and sports are not the same thing. I’ll expound on that later, but for the moment consider: athletics–physical fitness, the striving to achieve a bodily standard and ability–is about perfectibility. Never to be attained, of course, since in the first place we have no idea what that is, but also because we are always improving.
Sports, on the other hand, is not about perfectibility. It is about Winning. Solely.

Cities as a whole spend more on professional sports than they ever get back out of it, what with the tax credits, public support, public funding of arenas and stadiums. Simple bookkeeping shows this to be the case. My own city just came close to seeing a new baseball stadium built at the public expense AND THE ONE IT’S REPLACING HAS NEVER PAID BACK THE PUBLIC LOANS IT TOOK TO BUILD IT! We wrote it off.

Public referendums to defeat tax funded stadiums are routinely set aside, the voters ignored, and public money funneled in. Seattle is an excellent example. Repayment is almost always forgiven.

If this were done for an art museum, the scandal would end the careers of public officials. It would not stand.

People ignore it largely because it’s irrelevant. The profit derived from sports, the civic benefit supposedly enabled, are beside the point.

If you want to see what a nation worships, just look to see how big the cathedrals are and how many of them get built. In our case, sports facilities are churches. We don’t (collectively) care how much they cost. We go there to worship.

Worship what?

Worship the idea that physical prowess is a defining national characteristic and through such displays our national character is reified. Worship the idea that the only valid proof of prowess is beating the other guy–winning. And that through winning on the sports field, the whole country becomes by extension a country of winners.

America kicks ass.

Why this is more important than intelligence, learning, understanding, comprehending, and so forth, I don’t have a clue.

Unless it goes back to that innate quality thing.

See, I believe that all of us at some point in our lives, even if only for five minutes, want to believe that we are intrinsically better than someone else. That being better wasn’t–or shouldn’t be–a matter of earning it, just a matter of having been born better. It’s the basis of those infantile “My daddy’s better than your daddy” cut fights kids get into. Because I have no basis to claim my superiority over you, I will claim the superiority of my father over yours and that will be my victory over you as well.


Well, of course. But that’s never stopped people from doing or believing things before.
The attitude we have toward athletic ability is different from the attitude we have toward all other skills. We treat athletics as a inborn trait, a gift in the most literal sense, and something bound up with identity in a way that only music seems to approach. We see children with a “natural grace” that seemingly comes from nowhere (some with more grace than others, and many with no grace at all–as if they were born that way) and subconsciously begin to believe that all abilities “come naturally.” Later, when we realize this is a false conclusion, the mind makes an adjustment that simply covers over what we really want to believe. That while perhaps training is necessary to bring the talent to the fore, the talent is somehow “god given”, a blessing. That “natural grace” model trumps learned skill in those thoughtless moments when we make character judgments or moral valuations. (People who are good at things that can only ever be learned just aren’t quite as …cool…as people who have “god given talents”…)

Even music we concede is a learned thing.

It wasn’t until I read a Timothy Ferris essay on the genius of Joe Montana that I realized how entrenched is the attitude that athletics is an innate ability. (“Joe Montana’s Prefrontal Cortex” collected in The Mind’s Sky) Ferris is one of our best popular science writers and this essay is a discussion of the “genius” involved in superb athletic performance, that the ability to throw, run, catch, and do what athletes do is as much a matter of the brain’s ability to process information rapidly and accurately as it is the body’s ability to keep up with the brain’s direction.

But it is a developed skill, a learned ability, as much as anything else. (Which implies that anyone could do it given enough training, etc, which is also not true–no more true than “anyone” can be an Einstein or a Horowitz.)

We recoil from the idea, though, that pro athletes have what amounts to A Job.

No, it can’t be. It’s a Calling. It’s Destiny.

They are the exemplars of our faith in what is valuable. Why else the spastic aversion to steroids and performance enhancers? The temple attendants must be “pure” to properly reify what is important.

I’ve realized that my attitude toward athletics is at odds with my attitude toward sports. (I said I’d expound on this later.) I work out. I used to practice martial arts. I think those who deny the body, who abuse it, ignore it, try to pretend it’s not important, are fools (although I understand people who do so out of a sense of never “measuring up” to someone else’s–say, society’s–standards). I love the use of my body and, as I said earlier, many of my childhood heroes were athletes.

My attitude toward sports is different. Sports is not athletics. As silly and counterintuitive as that sounds–and I concede you cannot have sports without athletics, at least not in any recognizable sense–I think it is true and I think it is a distinction that needs to be recognized.

Sports is business combined with socialization.

When those jocks in high school asserted their “property rights” over the cheerleaders, they were exercising something that we simply take for granted in this society–sport heroes get special treatment and that treatment is expressed in social currency. I crossed a social line I should–if I’d been properly socialized–have known was there.

When that coach was following me around impugning my manhood because I wouldn’t “join the team” his animus came from a rejection of the Outsider by the community. He presumed that he, as representative of the community, had a right to coopt my “natural ability” for the use of that community. The idea that he should simply encourge me to continue being athletic and maybe helping me out with it didn’t even occur to him, because to do that would be to accept that I had the right to be apart from what he thought was important. And what he thought was important was Winning. I wouldn’t play along. I wouldn’t accept his standard of what makes someone valuable within a community. I wouldn’t put myself at the beck and call of my school or community. I wasn’t “one of the boys” and therefore could not be trusted. I was suspect. Worse than the nerds everyone poked fun at, I had clear athletic ability and wouldn’t put it at service to the community. It wasn’t that I couldn’t belong–I chose not to. And that was a threat.

And it had nothing to do with physical ability. This was a rejection (on my part) of a socially accepted ritual and what became a vicious condemnation of my lack of proper attitude.

As an adult, when I mention from time to time that I don’t care for sports, I still get an odd look. Occasionally someone cracks a joke about there being “something wrong” with me. Real animosity only emerges in arguments over public funding of sports.

And that’s where the business comes in.

It’s a cliche to call it bread and circuses, but damn, look at it. If it only involved the private sector, I wouldn’t get nearly so exercised about it (pun intended), but we distort our politics in the name of sports.

We have consortiums of owners and investors demanding tax underwriting for sports arenas. Very expensive sports arenas. Usually, all the benefits go one way. Payback is given lip service. Here in St. Louis, any two or three of the private investors could have paid for a new arena out of pocket, so to speak, without missing a digit from their golden parachutes. But no, they wanted state funding. None of the penalty clauses in the proposed contracts held them to anything. And, given the history of such things, it is doubtful that money would ever have been repaid.

People were rabid in their defense of the need of a new arena. Never mind the fiscal benefits, WE NEED THIS! THE CARDINALS COULD LEAVE!


Monopolistic cable owners held Miami hostage several years ago when the city council had the chutzpa to propose new regulations on them and suggest opening the field to competitors. How did they get Miami to cave? They threatened to black out the Super Bowl. The city caved.

How often do you see that kind of support for a new museum or a university (outside of its athletics program)?

But I think the worst distortion takes place in education.

Murray Sperber has published a book called Beer And Circus about the effects of big-time college sports on the universities and institutions that host it. Sperber’s conclusions are that it is a net loss financially–it costs more to have a high-profile college sports program than the institution ever gets back from it. Other university deans have been addressing this lately.

And the pass many college athletes get academically because of the presumed (imaginary) financial benefit to the school and, more importantly, the Prestige accruing to a “winning team” is criminal.

It’s not even that they get a walk through their curricula. It’s the glory. What would happen to our civilization if we heaped the same kind of praise onto Math majors or physics students who excelled in their fields? What if a biology graduate got a parade when a grant program gifted him or her with the money to do some serious work?
On the flip side, if a member of a school chess club got a girl drunk and raped her at a frat party, how long do you think it would take to have that kid in jail? But if that kid is a star athlete, the world bends over backward to make excuses for him and keep him free to play at the next Big Game. (I exaggerate here, but not by much–we have debate over what amounts of criminal behavior on the part of sports stars, debate that would never happen in the case of, well, anyone else.)

Why do we ignore achievement of the Mind in order to worship achievement of the body?
Partly, this comes from our being Sensate creatures. The physical is there, before us, it _is_ us, and we are naturally concerned with it. And I stress, the perfection of the physical, the striving toward physical achievement, is certainly laudable. As much as the perfectibility of the Mind. When the body works better, the mind works better.

But when we base our own self-image and the self-image of the community–not on the perfectibility of the body (because we all know that figure skating or gymnastics programs do NOT get the same kind of attention, either financially or popularly, as football or basketball, and that most people are completely unaware that there are fencing programs, archery programs, etc) but on the adrenalin rush of WINNING THE BIG GAME–we shortchange so much else and present to ourselves the least important aspect of being human.

The corruption and cheating and the lack of ordinary behavioral standards that go hand in hand with high-priced prestige sports should tell us everything we need to know about what is wrong with the way we treat it. Winning–never mind fair-and-square or anything to do with team spirit, etc–just Winning has become the goal and the defining characteristic of America. True, you have to win in a certain way–cheating must be limited, but not because it’s “wrong” but because you might get the trophy taken away if you’re caught.

Which brings me to the Super Bowl. As I said, I had to ask who was playing. Of course, now it’s everywhere, with commercials about the Champions and the commemorative videos, etc.

No one talks about the Other Team.

The Panthers. (This year, the Giants.)

Oh, yeah.

But they lost. Who gives a damn about them?

Never mind that athletically that team had to be every bit as good as the New England Patriots.

But it’s not about athletics. It’s about winning. It’s not about perfectibility. It’s about beating the other team.

It’s about making someone lose.

In the midst of all this testosterone and national ritual, Janet Jackson’s breast debuted on national television.

Oh, the horror! The shock!

How can we make sure this never happens again?

The handmaidens of the temple mysteries never show _their_ bare bosoms–you know, the cheerleaders? (Way back in the Seventies, when the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders posed nude for Playboy, they were fired. Irony is not something professional sports team owners seem to grasp. The halftime show is a feast of implied sexuality and cheesecake–but heaven forbid the promise is actually delivered!)

Maybe what is feared is that, in that brief flash of female flesh, the attention to the worship service on the field might be undermined, and we as a country might be distracted from what is really important.

I’ve gone on at length because I wanted the chance to stress–often–that I’m talking about Sports, not athletics. Sports is a ritual, a religion, and it is the National Religion of the United States, and its adherents are zealots every bit as unwilling to see things in perspective as conservative fundamentalists. Sports is the arena of the blessed, the gifted, and those who do not worship at the alter of Winning are heathens and suspect. Because we do not require people to live up to the standards displayed on the field, we only require that they watch and memorize the stats and know the players and pony up their money.

I watch the Olympics from time to time and find that I am not at all bored or offended. I don’t like to call them Sports because still, even with the growing presence of money and ritual, those people are Athletes. We understood the difference once when we required that Olympic contenders be amateurs. We understood that once they take money and join a Sport as a professional, it’s not about perfectibility anymore.

We’re losing that sense of the difference.