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?

Yes.

Do I believe it is divine in nature and origin?

No.

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?

Expedience.

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.

Sports.

(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.

Stupid.

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!

So?

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.

Snark Time

We’re just waiting now for either Romney or Huckabee to bow out, right?  The snark factor is going to get huge from here till November.  Hilary and Barack are sniping at each other, Romney and McCain are getting downright nasty.

I have no idea who our next president will be.  A few months ago I was confident enough to say it would be a Democrat, that the country has had enough of Bush Republicans.  McCain is a Bush Republican, so if he actually snags the nomination, I thought that would be a guarantee of a Democrat getting the nod.

But if they don’t stop this idiotic bickering…

People claim not to like negative campaigns, but damn it when things are civilized people just don’t seem to care.  Attacks ads are tasteless, usually always false, but they get people riled and out the door to the polls.  It makes no sense.  But it does, in a twisted way.  Train wrecks draw more spectators than a field of flowers.

I’m wondering when Hilary and Barack will figure out that if they make a deal now to run as a team, they would be unbeatable.  Flip a coin to see who’s on top—er, well, you know what I mean—and play it right, and I think the Dems would have a 16 year lock on the White House.  That might not necessarily be a good thing, but as a strategy it could work for them.

I do not believe such a strategy would work for McCain and Romney—or Huckabee.  They seem to be appealing to different arms of the party.  A three armed party?  Well, you knew they had some problems, right?

I think it likely that the Republican Party is going to go down in flames.  I talked about the problems I see with the core voting points for a large and vocal constituency of them, and McCain is becoming a lightening rod for dissension—is he a true Red State boy or not?

There was a time I respected John McCain.  Back in 2000 I thought he should be the one.  Again in 2004.  Bush—Karl Rove, actually—beat him up so badly that I thought he would either withdraw forever or come back like an avenging Samurai.  I did not expect him to start taking on all the execrable traits of the man who had abused him.  I think he wants to be president so badly, nothing else matters anymore.  And that’s sad.

Romney and Huckabee have problems of philosophy for me.  Does religion matter?  Privately, no.  If you’re going to base public policy on it, though, we have an issue, and since neither of them seems to have a strong grasp of science and one of them publicly denies evolution (on which so much modern biological and environmental science now depends, which does kind of sort of make it a policy problem), I have a difficult time seeing how they’ll be particularly keen on some policy issues that are going to matter more and more.

I find I can disagree honestly with Huckabee.  He is not loathesome, I just won’t vote for him.

On the other side, it is now the Hilary and Barack Show, and this is sadly difficult.  I respect them both.  I like Obama.  I had no real problems with the last Clinton administration and see no reason why a new one would be worse.  I would like to see the gender barrier broken.  I would also like to see the race barrier broken.

I would like to see them stop sniping at each other and team up.

Do I think that will happen?  What do you think?

Home Improvements

You may notice that there are a couple of changes to the website.  On the main page, you’ll find a link to my Books.  There are few more covers to post, but they’re all linked to Amazon for your convenience.

Also, there is now a Contact tab.  info@marktiedemann.com

Anyone wishing to drop me a line or two or contact me about services, that’s the address.  I do appearances, I lecture, I do workshops.  Let me know what you need and I’ll be glad to discuss it with you.

Some things, I must say, I don’t want to hear about.  If you have a hot new book idea that’s a guaranteed blockbuster, but you don’t have time to write it, don’t tell me.  I’m sure it’s a great idea, but I have plenty of my own to work on, and while I’d be flattered at your generosity in splitting the proceeds, you would in the long run be better served by finding the time and writing it yourself.  Likewise, I don’t want to see your new manuscript unless you have sold it and want a blurb or you wish to pay me to go over it.  We can discuss fees, then.  And just so there be no misunderstanding, I’m in a relationship, thank you, so any propositions that might concern matters along those lines, try eHarmony.

There are a few more things to be done to the site, but for the most part it’s pretty much the way I intend it to be.  Thanks for your patience and thank you very much for your interest and support.

Moral Values Redux

It’s the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Endless words and pain and earnest concern have been, will be, spun out about this. A few years ago, I wrote the following piece. It bears reposting. I’ve modified it in a few spots to bring it up to date with new thoughts I’ve had, but I can’t find much that doesn’t bear a re-airing. So.

In 2004, George Bush was reelected. We can debate endlessly over whether or not he stole that election, but it’s beside the point for this rant. Besides, four million popular votes seems like a big wad to steal.

What we need to figure out if we want to have any possibility of turning this misdirected ship around is WHY SO MANY PEOPLE VOTED FOR THE REPUBLICAN RIGHT? Not even just Republicans–there are decent Republicans that I would support (Arlan Spector comes to mind, as does a pre-2004 John McCain)–but the rabid fundie far right wing of the party, the wing that is destroying it and trying to turn this country into something like a theocracy.

So what was it?

The factor listed by most exit polls in Middle America was–is–Moral Values. Not in California or the Northeast corridor, but in the Heartland.
Moral Values.

I had thought for a long time that the issues driving Bush supporters floated between abortion, school prayer, and taxes. I’m now not so sure tax cuts are that important–these people have got to realize that if Bush continues his policies, at some point a huge bill is going to come due.

The furor over gay marriage in the last months of the campaign underscores the exit polls. Moral Values.

If I thought the votes were driven by the deep morality stemming from a Kantian apprehension of the nature of the right, the good, and the universalizable as determined by a focused application of the categorical imperative, I wouldn’t be so concerned. If I thought people had given due attention to a reasoned examination of a sound set of moral principles and voted accordingly, I wouldn’t be upset. Unfortunately, I seriously doubt that to be the case.

Perhaps I’m being unfair–I’m sure there are individuals out there who did indeed make such a study and still voted for the Republican Right–but collectively, this whole Moral Values thing is a shuck. It’s more about appearances than anything truly moral.
Look what the sentiments are:

1: The anti-abortion movement is a powerful centerpiece for this voter block. The overturning of Roe v. Wade is core. They wish to outlaw abortion.

2: Prayer as a public function. Prayer in school, Christian associational material in government facilities, a national embrace of religion in public life. They do not like a secular state.

3: A clear aversion to homosexuality.

4: A strong censorship movement to ban or diminish the presence of what they deem pornographic. This extends to literature in schools that seems to promote a serious re-evaluation of “traditional” morays or deals in subjects which make them uncomfortable–adolescent sexuality, racism, anti-authoritarianism, and extends to secular subjects such as biology, history, and philosophy.

5: A rejection of biological science, specifically Evolution as the determined mechanism of the development of life–most especially a rejection of the evolutionary given that human beings are part and parcel of that life and have come about in the same way as all other life.

6: A promotion of so-called Family Values, which is a catch phrase for a desire to return–as they put it–to a traditional set of relational codes defining the roles of men and women and children in society. Monogamy, procreation, and a hierarchical family structure are part of this, with the male as head of household.

7: A rejection of so-called affirmative action principles. Along with this comes an aversion to a suite of programs they label socialist. Anti-socialism is the center of their fear of government systems.

8: A stated desire to eliminate entitlements. “People who do not work should not get money,” is a phrase I have heard in relation to this for several years now.

9: The desire for a strong military and, by extension, an aggressively patriotic international diplomatic posture.

Too bad I can’t come up with a tenth. The Ten Commandments of the Political Religious Right. There would be some symmetry to this, ironic symmetry. But I do not wish to get too ridiculous. I could find a tenth, but why bother? These nine do nicely to define the so-called Moral Values of Bush’s core supporters.

In as brief an argument as I can muster, the legitimacy of calling this program the product of moral values can be questioned easily enough by a simple test. Take the first principle–abortion. They claim they are Right To Life advocates–that life is sacred. Ask each their stand on the Death Penalty. As a group, the various factions that come together under this banner supports the Death Penalty. The basis of their aversion to abortion, then, is bogus. Life is life. It is sacred or it is not. A moral value must be consistent if anything, and this is not in this case. (Likely you will find support among them for Bush’s military policies–more killing. But to them, that’s okay, in fact necessary, because They are the Enemy.)

Since the avowed dedication to the sanctity of life is undermined by a willingness to enact the death penalty, the claim that this is a moral principle is rendered untenable. The one should follow from the other–life in the womb can be no more sacred than a twenty-year-old murderer. Sacred is sacred. You may not kill.

By extension, the rest of the list can fall. None of them stands as a solid moral value.
So what are they?

Behavioral restrictions. Class alignments. Sentiment. Prejudice disguised as morality. Expressions of fear, resentment, uncertainty.

These are people who do not like the way their country seems to be. It doesn’t look good to them. They don’t like the choices their children might make. They are uncomfortable with how things seem to be evolving. For them, a moral value is something that comforts and freezes in time a way of life they see threatened or vanishing.

But rather than just dismiss them for frightened people struggling to impose their view of what they think the world should look like on everyone, let’s go further and examine the grounding of each of these arguments. We need to understand these things if we are to get out from under the growing tyranny of what is not a Moral Values program but an Ideological Imposition program.

Let’s take the top issue. Abortion.

Since Roe v. Wade, we have watched a growing faction of sincere, highly religious people banding together to condemn what they regard as murder. The termination of a pregnancy to them is on par with the cold blooded killing of a person who can stand before us, talk, express ideas, laugh, cry, and have relationships. Biological science, no matter what it says, is not persuasive. These folks will not accept any definition of a fetus that denies its essential status as a human being.

The arguments that led to Roe v. Wade are equally unpersuasive–that a woman has a right to determine when or if she will bear children. The economic stranglehold men have traditionally had over women, especially in a marital relationship, does not seem to matter in this debate. That women have until the last half century little say over their role in life is inconsequential.

Why? Is it that they don’t believe these arguments? I think for many, this is true. They may hear the stories of what it used to be like and either judge those stories as myth or outright fabrication. They judge them according to the life they currently have, without the least idea that history was ever different. Partly, too, there is a lack of understanding about the mechanisms of dominance and oppression. If a woman is in a bad relationship, she should leave.

Or just be a good christian and put up with it. I’ve heard that echoed throughout society, from Tammy Wynette’s pathetic “Stand By Your Man” anthem to religious isolationists who flat out deny their women the possibility of either having a say in how they live or leaving when circumstances become intolerable. This is not the past. This is the present. These groups exist. But it doesn’t have to be a group–there are many people who simply live in circumstances so restricted that it might as well be 1890 all over again.

And the anchor that binds these women, the Damocletian Sword dangling over their heads, is their children. The ones they already have and the ones they will inevitably have because, along with everything else, they are denied contraception as well. (The argument that contraception is available at any drug store makes no real difference—if a person does not know about it, does not furthermore feel free to use something, it might as well be on the moon or nonexistent. The good and decent middle class people who fail to comprehend this aspect of psychology simply can’t conceive of an instance in which they personally would be denied anything they thought they needed. Time in a woman’s shelter would be instructive.)
Not having sex for these women is not an option. This is hard to believe for people who either would never think of denying their mate sex or have simply never been in a situation where they could not say no. It is dangerous and politically irresponsible to regard one’s personal circumstance as the universal condition in which everyone else lives–or should live.

It was not that long ago–a generation, and in some states it may still be the case–that denial of conjugal “rights” was solid grounds for a man to divorce his wife. He did not have to prove it. How could you? And the courts would favor him in the settlements. This is recent history! Yes, it has changed–one of the things so-called No Fault Divorce ushered in along with other reforms. But the sentiment has not gone away for many people.

Consider the practical for just a moment–if you want to get away from someone, you should be prepared to leave with as little as possible. The more you have tying you to a place and a circumstance, the less ability you have to change your life. Children are insurmountable obstacles to a woman leaving undesirable circumstances. It can be done, certainly, but they complicate the process tremendously.

Roe v. Wade took away the power of threat men had over women in these regards. At least in principle. It accorded to the woman the right to determine the use of her body in matters of procreation–which naturally leads directly to matters of recreation. It made a case for women “owning” their sexuality, something that has been the source of debate and divisiveness for centuries if not millennia.

Roe was based substantially on an earlier Supreme Court case, Griswold v. Connecticut, which was concerned with a woman’s right to avail herself of the means to control procreation. In Griswold the Court struck down state laws that dictated matters of private conduct. The basis of the law so challenged seems to have been that it is the man, not the woman, who has the say in if and when there will be more children. Needless to say, this implied responsible relationships—marital––and by extension denied that unmarried women had any rights in the matter whatsoever, since the law concerned the availability of contraception. The Court decided Griswold 7-2 to strike down the Connecticut law (in the words of Justice Potter Steward an “uncommonly silly law”) and thereby staked out an area of privacy and self-determination upon which women then based several arguments in the coming decade regarding their role in society as free agents and whole persons.

To my mind, what both Griswold and Roe established is a principle which states that a woman has the right to make determinations about procreation and the use of her body, exclusively unto herself as a free and responsible agent, i.e. a citizen. By definition, this means that she has a right not to be pregnant. It is absurd to argue a determination principle if the thing being determined is not also implicitly argued in the course of definition. A woman gets to say when or if she will bear children––pregnancy being the necessary pre-condition for childbearing, she gets to say when or if she will be pregnant.

You may not establish a principle that then disappears when context changes. In other words, if a woman has the right not to be pregnant, that right does not vanish because she becomes pregnant.

To make this as explicit as possible, this would mean that if we hold in principle that a person has a right not to be a slave, that right cannot disappear if someone binds that individual and makes him or her a slave. The principle holds, regardless. As a free and responsible agent, the principle pertains even in changed contexts.

It might be argued that such a principle, when applied to parenthood, could be taken to mean that a person has a right not to be a parent, therefore that person has the right to kill any child that puts that person into that circumstance. That would be absurd, of course, since we do have such a right, and there are systems in place for removing the child into foster care or adoption by others. Besides, the child is in itself a recognized individual entity––a free agent, if you will––and all other protections that apply to the “parent” apply to the child. You can’t murder the child. (Aha! But if a fetus is a child, you might say, then abortion becomes automatically murder. But a child, out of the womb, extant, is not contributing anyone’s condition of pregnancy. The woman in question is not pregnant and cannot kill the child to defend the right not to be pregnant. Further, there is an underlying statement of attribution involved, in which at some point the women decided that the fetus was, to her, a person. That unspoken statement of attribution defines the situation. But without that statement, that acknowledgment, the fetus remains, to her, no such thing as a person. In fact, the three trimester test in Roe implicitly acknowledges this statement.)
Of course, here is where the pro-life movement has made its most incisive critique of abortion rights. They argue simply that a fertilized egg is a person.

In practical terms this is moot. There is no person since there is no personality. But I’m not going to settle this debate here. We enter now into the realm of sentiment, and sentiment does not lend itself to logic or principle. The basic fact of the matter is, the issue to be resolved concerns pregnancy. You might well argue that an individual has a right to own a particular object, but such a right does not grant permission for that individual to steal it from someone else––the granting of a right by violation of another right is unsustainable and fundamentally corrupt.

But the movement to outlaw abortion lacks the cogency of a moral issue because of the corollary issues infusing it. We can see by examining the suite of demands of the pro-life movement that it is not abortion as such that offends them.

Europe––at least what we know as Western Europe––has less than one tenth the abortions as America. Why? Are they having less sex? Obviously not. The difference is in their approach to contraception education and availability and a certain nuance with regard to the entire question of sexuality. I make this point because clearly abortion can be reduced without a hegemonic legal revolution which would necessarily challenge what have become fundamental principles of free agency in this country, namely the right to mutual associations.

The overwhelming majority of pro-life movements refuse to discuss a rationalization of sex education and contraceptive access that would most likely drastically reduce the need and demand for abortion. Most of them include in their activist programs curtailments of such things. Their blunt and uncompromising advocacy of Abstinence Only sex education shows a clear agenda that is at least equally if not primarily concerned with the issue of Sexuality. (The founder and former head of Operation Rescue, Randall Terry, stated explicitly in many interviews that he believes all forms of contraception are abortion in one form or another and all of them should be outlawed.)
They do not, in the long run, wish to dictate abortion rights so much as they wish to dictate private behavior. To them, there are only a few acceptable circumstances for sexual activity, and they seem to think they can determine people’s proclivities by reducing their options.

Essentially, this is not a moral issue, since its presentation is misleading, and its goal is a fundamental denial of free agency.

This is a behavioral issue, or, if you will, an issue of taste, of sentiment, of intolerance. These are people who do not like certain behaviors and wish to mandate their elimination.

Moral Value number one–not.

What about the next one? The embrace–or, as some would phrase it, a return–of public religiosity.

The chief argument made by its proponents is that because god is absent from our public institutions, the country has slipped morally.

I will challenge this assertion by two arguments–first, one can reasonably assume that the majority of people who comprise our institutions are religious. Why this fact would vanish from their consciousness because they “clock in” at their jobs is difficult to understand. True, the format, the rules, the guidelines of a job apply certain restrictions on action, but with, as Kant would put it, a good will the uses to which the tools available may be put will be informed by the conscience of the person using them.

Secondly, let us look at the history of those institutions and see if this holds true.

The Supreme Court took up the modern argument over the Establishment Clause, as it is known, in 1947 in a small case involving public funding of school buses to parochial schools. A series of cases followed, culminating in 1971 in Lemon v. Kurtzman , a case involving public support of salaries of teachers who taught secular subjects in parochial schools. Laws in both Rhode Island and Pennsylvania were in question and the court found such public funding a violation of the Establishment Clause because it engendered “undue entanglements” of public into private institutions. This resulted in what is known as The Lemon Test, an unfortunate name.

Under the Lemon Test, for a law to be constitutional it must pass three standards. 1: it must have a secular legislative purpose; 2: its principle or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and 3: it must not foster an excessive entanglement with religion.

Needless to say, this has engendered tremendous controversy and dissent on the Court itself. It is vague, but not incomprehensible, and requires that one set aside ambitions of agenda to apply it fairly.

However, it has not eliminated god from our public institutions entirely. Congress still opens session with a prayer. The president––many of them even up to the present––have had prayer breakfasts. Our courts still swear witnesses in with bible and oath to god.

Granted, the presence of christianity was greater in the nineteenth century. No argument was seriously leveled against the massive entanglement of religious sentiment in political matters because most people who had any voice whatsoever were on the same page. It was agreed among the actors in our national policy that we were a christian nation and that god was on our side.
So let’s look at the record.

Women did not get the vote till 1921. Legally, most women were regarded as “chattel” in the biblical sense–property, under command of their husbands. In matters of divorce, the man could throw them out of the house with nothing but the clothes they were wearing at the time, cutting them off from children, shelter, food, any kind of support, and this could be done legally. These were christian times.

We had to fight a horrific civil war to end slavery in 1865. Good christians all, the secessionists maintained that slavery was a responsibility handed them by god, for what would these poor souls do if they were freed? Thomas Jefferson worried over it and his argument was that the two races could not co-exist as political equals. Prejudices were so deeply rooted that “ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained––new provocations––the real distinctions that nature has made, and many other circumstances which divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which would never end but with the extermination of one or the other race.” Andrew Jackson, in congress during the debates over the issue, suggested that perhaps northern Quakers approved of racial mixing and wouldn’t mind “giving their daughters to negro sons, and receiving negro daughters for their sons.” William Laughton Smith, a South Carolinian senator, put it this way: “If the blacks did not intermarry with the whites, they would remain black until the end of Time; for it was not contended that liberating them would whitewash them; if they did intermarry with the whites, then the white race would be extinct, and the American people would all be of the mulatto breed. In whatever light therefore the subject is viewed, the folly of emancipation is manifest.”

I quote these at length because this was during a time and these were men of America as a profoundly christian nation. God’s presence did not do much to enlighten them and cause them to do the right thing.

While all this was going on, the Marshall supreme court was fast demolishing the Jeffersonian republicanism that sought to guarantee some level of personal sinecure to families, in favor or a market driven embrace of capitalism which resulted in the impoverishment of hundreds of thousands and spurred the westward expansion which led to the decimation of the native American tribes. The principle of Manifest Destiny. “Our manifest destiny,” according to John Lewis O’Sullivan, in the pages of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review of 1845, “is to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” Never mind the people already living there, god had given this land to us––we just have to take it. Very christian. The death, disease, and penury the American Indian was reduced to in the course of a number of campaigns to wrest the land from them is a litany of abuse worthy of fascism, all conducted by god-fearing christian people who prayed daily and welcomed religion into our public institutions.

Those three alone should suffice to demonstrate that an active presence of religion did nothing to ameliorate the wrongs embraced by our leaders and supported by our forebears. God-directed imperialism, with concomitant missionary work, did massive damage in the Philippines, the Hawaiian Islands, the Sandwich Islands. Good christian legislators turned away ships laden with Jews escaping Hitler’s Germany, all based on the wrong-headed eugenics of Robert M. Yerkes––not that I think they understood his arguments so much as they welcomed something that looked like science to underpin their basic intolerance as christians.

Time and again you can look at segments of American history wherein self-proclaimed christians did immoral things in the name of the christian god. The KKK was obsessed with a protestant christianity that embraced the concept of an Elect. The various white supremacy groups sprinkled throughout the country today all espouse a christian orthodoxy that, they claim, mandates aggressive approaches to “problems” like race or other faiths or secularism.

So it can be seen clearly that a high profile and public inclusion of religion has not made us more moral in our political or cultural pursuits. The argument that we are less moral because we have shoved the two things apart––particularly in schools––holds no water. (As a personal anecdote, I attended a parochial grade school. The daily doses of Jesus did nothing to dissuade my school mates from indulging in racial bigotry, bullying, lying, cheating on tests, or any other form of childhood malfeasance. Not that they were worse, only that god’s presence did nothing to make them any better.) In fact, it could be argued that since an aggressive secularization of government and public discourse, we have been on a road to moral improvement, since we bring no such unquestioned preconceptions to problem solving.

So what drives this desire to see “god back in the classroom and in our public institutions”?

We do not see any discussion among the various fundamentalist groups for a more inclusive definition of god. We don’t see demands that in schools there are periods of meditation in honor of Buddha or inclusion during the day of the various rakats of Islam. No, what we see is a demand for an exclusively christian practice and observance.

Even if this were accomplished, what is the expected result? Enlightenment? Doubtful. If that were the case, those so devoutly arguing for this would already have found enlightenment and would cease the political struggle, realizing that it is founded on false assumptions. No, this too is a quest for behavioral control. The imposition of a standard of behavior on those with whom they disagree, not so much to change the minds of those who do not agree, but to prevent exposure of their children to alternative ideas. If there is no dissent, there is no problem, no disagreement. This is the conceit of despotism throughout history.

The motive for their desire is therefore selfish and without reflection for consequence. Prayer has never made us a better country. The acknowledgment of problems and their nature and the conscious decision to solve them has made us better.

But on a more fundamental level, it is this urgency to impose a christian aspect that reveals a basic insecurity and desire for a kind of one-size-fits-all solution to perceived problems. The idea that faith transforms infuses this movement with an evangelistic momentum that can allow no debate. And here we must look into the underpinnings of the movement to see what they actually want.

We have a pluralistic society. This means several ideologies, world views, faiths, aesthetics, customs––the building blocks of personal foundations––rub up against each other constantly. Dealing with all these things leads to a certain amount of confusion and, occasionally, frustration. Much simpler if we were all alike in some way. But in a country where you can have disagreement over a given issue between two supposedly similar sects––christians disagreeing over abortion or homosexuality––how can we possibly find a single solution?

We can’t. It’s that simple. As my father used to say, grow up and get over it. People are different. Even when they seem the same, dig deep enough you find differences.

The goal, therefore, as I stated above, of the more rabid christian sects is to eradicate all public expression of those differences. They ask how it can be expected of them to raise their children “properly” when the people around them, in the communities they must live, won’t raise their children according to the same standards. What they want is a guarantee of provenance, a contract with society that tells them they are right and no one will publicly differ with their choices. An examination of their institutions shows a marked tendency to establish nonporous ideological boundaries. Certain ideas, certain music, books, clothing, certain attitudes are kept out by restrictive codes in their schools and, when possible, in their communities. This fear of alternative ideas is an old American disease we have yet to deal with. We are a mongrel nation with no pedigree and a brief history (though getting less brief; one would think we should be getting over our insecurity) and we want to guarantee the rightness of our vision, our choices. Rather than deal with new ideas, learn about and from them, and put them in a perspective that benefits us, we keep them out. I repeat, this is nothing new. This is, in fact, a very christian way of dealing with strange ideas. Christian policy has always been to burn heretical writings and, occasionally, the heretics espousing them. Kill the message and the messenger and keep these crazy notions away from our kids so they don’t grow up asking uncomfortable questions. (Yes, many other religions also adhere to this kind of policy, but as it is the christian Right I’m discussing here, let me point out how Not Different they truly are.)
While for some this may be a desirable condition, a goal worth fighting for, it does not constitute on any grounds a Moral Value, as it necessarily disenfranchises dissent and enshrines intolerance. It is a sanctification of ignorance, and one cannot be a sound moral agent without knowledge. You must understand the world and the way it is and what it throws at you, and you must understand yourself. Ignorance is a basic evil when it is enforced. Religion has a history, for better or worse, of defining good and evil as a practical matter and then issuing restrictions. Thomas Aquinas himself defined what he called “cultivated ignorance” which is a self-perpetuating condition useful for its perceived protective utility. But in the end, ignorance kills––it kills the spirit, the mind, and, eventually, the person.

As a Moral Value, public prayer is a mask for a desired goal of behavioral control and the expulsion of inconvenient acknowledgments of pluralism. Neither is realistic nor moral.

What about the issue of homosexuality? This is not a question of morality but of prejudice. Views held out of prejudice cannot be moral, since prejudice itself precludes any reasoned assessment or objective analysis. It is also a vendetta against people who are different who live according a set of principles which the bigot may well share. Rights and freedoms of association (for me, the bigot, not for you); a desire for companionship (only in certain ways and not in others, which is behavioral control); a desire/need for sex with a mutually consenting partner (the heterosexual may, with certain provisions, indulge, but not the homosexual since indulgence represents an offensive behavior to me).

If it is good and moral for a married couple (heterosexual) to have sexual relations for pleasure, then the only issue at hand in this debate is the gender. If we take as given that sex is not limited to procreation––and, in fact, for any given individual may be completely irrelevant to the issue––then to assert that recreational sex may only be conducted between individuals of opposite sex is absurd, since eroticism is not limited to either gender considerations, or numerical considerations. In fact, auto-eroticism extends the argument that a partner of the opposite sex or at all is not necessary for recreational sexual activity.

Of course, the stance of the fundamentalist will be that sex is for procreation and that it is god mandated as such. This is no more than the assertion of personal preference as moral law. It cannot be effectively––or even desirably––universalized, therefore it does not support itself as a Moral Value.

Marriage issues are another matter. But this is a legal matter, not a moral matter. The debate over gay marriage is over entitlements and legal protections as much if not more than any moral concerns.
The question of censorship should be a non-starter. But it is there. In questions concerning children, it is argued by no one that the introduction of certain ideas, images, or theories requires care and timeliness. This, however, is not amenable to the one-size-fits-all standard of the religious fundamentalist. If you cannot universally apply a principle without stumbling over numerous and insurmountable objections or exceptions, it is not a Moral Value. This is a question of taste, sensitivity, and character, not morality in the public sense. (Half-facetiously, let me argue here that I might have some sympathy for the removal of bill boards advertising sex clubs, but only because I would argue for the removal of ALL bill boards, including those advertising JESUS or a particular church. In this case, it is the bill board concept itself I find offensive, regardless of the particular message. I would not go so far as to assert my position as a moral value, though.)

Censorship serves no good purpose. As a matter of practical policy, it is a fickle thing. If it is established as an accepted principle, then the object being censor can change with political whim. Those demanding censorship of pornography this year could, based on precedent, see their own message censored next year simply because a different faction is in power. The only defense against demagoguery and deceit is the absolute freedom of expression in public forums. The only defense against the demise of a vital civil discourse is the absolute discretion of the individual of what to see, hear, read, or think in private. Censorship promotes neither condition.

This is not a Moral Value, since as one of its consequences it would undermine moral discourse. (If you cannot talk about a subject because it is censored, you cannot determine the suitability of its use or censorship. You establish a doctrinal tautology that permits of no re-examination, which cannot even look to substantiating its own validity.)

The railing of the religious right against evolution is one of the saddest spectacles in history. Because they accept as a given that the truth of evolution would render all morality moot, they cannot accept any notion that morality is a human endeavor and can be both achieved and applied based on any standard other than divine grace. They de facto banish ethics as insufficient and bind us to a creation myth that privileges human beings over and above their environment and paradoxically emphasizes our powerlessness to affect our own affairs. It is, in fact, a plea for exemption from moral casuistry, since it relies on the principle of divine forgiveness as escape clause from immediate responsibilities. The war against evolution is no more than a tactical maneuver to evade a more functional code of moral responsiveness. As such it can claim no status as a Moral Value on any level.

Family Values has been the catch-all phrase for a suite of changes demanded by religious activists centered on the notion that all of the above-mentioned criteria must be dealt with or we risk seeing the family destroyed. One must ask the basic question––is this even possible? The Soviet Union made a concerted effort to do just that over three or four generations, and found it to be impossible. This is something so geared into what people are––thanks to the very evolution fundamentalists are opposed to––that we just do it. Constantly. We form families. We can’t help it.

So what is it the Moral Values/Family Values crowd really want?

They have adopted a Norman Rockwell model of what a family is and wish to ban anything that does not fit that formula. In particular, they want to reduce or eliminate single parent families; bar alternative arrangements like line families or group marriages; curtail divorce; and generally see a conformity of family life with a stable community model that recalls an idyllic time in history when…

When such things never existed. Not in the way the model is presented. We had a brief period when the so-called nuclear family held sway, and even then it was probably not a majority reality, and that was the post-WWII generation that gave birth to the Baby Boom. Economic realities and the social conscience movements of the Sixties and Seventies have battered that model into unworkability except in rare instances. Two incomes are necessary for most families now, and even if not a requirement the idea of socially enforcing a stay-at-home mom is repugnant along ethical and political lines.

But the nuclear family is a modern manifestation of the patriarchal clan model of the late 18th-early 19th centuries, wherein the head of the house––male––was absolute ruler in a minor fiefdom. In the Fifties, we saw this as one of the proud claims––”a man’s home is his castle”––and there were “educational” films made enforcing the idea that the wife and kids were to be subservient to dad. This has all but vanished and justly so since such formulas disenfranchise individuality (the wife cannot make decisions, think, or challenge bad ideas because it is not her “place” and the children must suffer any abuse because they are not competent to challenge authority).

The lack of such central authority in the household has led to certain unpleasant consequences. But also to some very good ones. It’s a mixed bag and we’re still working through it. But to claim that the way things have transpired is due to a collapse of moral values is absurd. What is being demanded here is a return of privilege, and with it a subsequent “simplification” of living arrangements. Of course, this necessarily entails the surrender of certain personal privileges on the part of certain members of the community within the privacy of the household.

An assertion of a principle cannot be called moral if in its application it violates other pre-existing moral principles. Suppression of autonomy as a principle is prima facie amoral at best, immoral in most general practice. In the course of political action or in the interests of the community, such suppression can be seen as a practical matter in the interest of decision-making and necessary action for best interests of the community. But it must always be a temporary condition. In the instance of interpersonal relationships, a principle of deferment may be established, again as a matter of practicality, and certainly in instances where age, experience, or education trump willfulness–but again, this must be a temporary manifestation, to be alleviated as time and circumstance permit. As a permanent feature of any set of relationships, it is perhaps expedient, but never moral.

But a good deal of Family Value rhetoric concerns itself with the following ideas, which are number seven, eight, and nine in the listed platform demands of the religious right–the Moral Value Faction, if you will. And these are all social issues which on their face have dubious relations with anything that might be labeled a moral value.

Number seven and eight can be dealt with together, since they are based on the same issue––”people who do not work should not get money.”

This is a notion born from the transformation of American society in the 1820s through 1840s when all hope of Jeffersonian agrarianism was lost in the overwhelming surge of market capitalism. It is arguable, certainly, whether Jefferson’s vision would have worked. It seems, ultimately, utopian and unsustainable. Population growth alone spurred its demise, in favor of something more aggressively opportunistic.

But the ethical transformation that went along with the embrace of the market fostered a number of pernicious myths which were only bearable while they could be ignored. Poverty as symptom of moral corruption being chief among them, that a person’s misfortune, economically, was always and everywhere his fault. (I can say “his” in this context since this emerged at a time when women were kept out of the market economy by law and custom and were merely “victims”.) Before the advent of modern economic theories and the models they produced, it was assumed, ala Adam Smith, that a healthy growing market would absorb anyone willing to participate. Therefore, those who failed were somehow culpable.

It went further, though. Prior to this explosion of entrepreneurial muscularity, subsistence economies, while certainly difficult and requiring hard work, spread the labor requirements out so that the work done by an entire family was what counted. Obsession was not required. But as the market displaced subsistence culture, a zealotry of enterprise arose requiring from each individual (male)––because this was the new model, it was all dependent on the Individual––a total commitment to “getting ahead” or, as they called it then, “betterment.” Communal methods fell by the wayside as individual entrepreneurial effort became the standard. (It is probably no coincidence that a sharp rise in mental illness accompanied this transformation and the first insane asylums were built at the same time Wall Street was becoming a power in the nation’s economy.)

One result was that those who could not, for whatever reason, successfully compete were relegated to the sidelines, poverty, and the derision and/or pity of society for being somehow unfit, morally or physically or psychically.

We now know that the Adam Smith model is a perpetual motion machine which cannot work at the efficiency level he assumed. We now know that no matter how efficient an economy becomes, there can never be 100% employment. (One thing that mitigates against this is that 100% employment would generate infinite upward pressure on wages, which would quickly spiral out of bounds and the entire system would collapse, burned up.)

Today, we also have the problem of increasing machine efficiency which is gradually displacing traditional labor requirements. People do not adapt as fast as machines can be built to displace them. There will inevitably be unemployables under such circumstances.

How this can be seen as the fault of the unemployed is inexplicable.

Yet the myth persists among the Right––people who do no work should not get money.

Which means they cannot live, they cannot support their families, they cannot survive.

“Then they should work harder.”

It becomes a tautology. A tautology cannot ever be deployed as a Moral Virtue, since its basis is a reliance on its own internal logic, divorced from any external checks. It’s absurd.

But what this really comes down to is a declaration of an unwillingness to be taxed for the benefit of those we do not see as “contributing” to the community. It is a money issue.

First and foremost, however, it is a systems issue, and we have seen in the traditional Right Wing view an intransigence toward accepting any description of the system in which we live that suggests it is inherently flawed and must be fixed. Capitalism––the Market––has taken its place next to the Church as a religious ideology unchallengeable by mortal effort. The religious fervor of Nineteenth Century capitalist reformation has become a sanctified precept of the modern age and while the mechanisms of the era that spawned it no longer pertain to modern circumstances, like all religious conviction the dogma persists. It is a way of separating the Elite from the Damned, a metric that says one group is better than another.

Membership in either group is largely chance, though. If you’re willing to accept things as they are on that basis and just admit that you aren’t willing to pay for public relief, fine. But you cannot define this position as moral in any way.

The war on entitlements, though, is based firmly on the wallet. When you get to the end of the debate, it’s a question of taxes. “Let private charity take care of the poor.” Which is a way of saying let someone else do it, leave me alone. And even if you contribute to those charities, charities by their nature are fickle and inconsistent and often reflect the prejudices of their institutional origins.

President Bush’s program to “reform” Social Security can be seen as part and parcel of this attitude–”it’s your money, you should be free to invest it.” This ignor

Sex, Sin, and Secrets

Last night I saw The Da Vinci Code for the first time.  I had read the first chapter of the book some time ago and frankly it so did not capture my imagination that I haven’t picked it up since.  Years before, I’d read Holy Blood Holy Grail, the book upon which most of Brown’s novel seems based, although the ideas in both have been around for a long, long time.

What did I think of the movie?  It was entertaining.  It moved well.  One might say it is almost (almost, not quite) a Thinking Person’s Indiana Jones.  The photography is gorgeous, the settings cool, and I am never disappointed by Ron Howard’s direction.  Tom Hanks character seems a bit too restrained at times, but this is a minor quibble.

I am frankly impressed that they had the nerve to follow the argument all the way through.  The whole notion of Jesus’ sex life drives many people into spasms of irrational anxiety and vehement denunciation.  It is not just that the early church—from the time of Constantine on—exhibited a profound and evolving misogyny, but that the very idea of sexual intercourse itself elicits a kind of systemic, reflexive revulsion I find baffling to say the least.  I mean, if it were only the subjugation of women at issue, then the notion that Jesus might have used them like kleenexes (much as most charismatic cult leaders have done and continue to do) should raise no passions.

No, it is beyond that.  It is a rejection of sex as a valid exercise between men and women.  Jesus and the Apostles become not just the ultimate He-Man Woman Haters Club, but a paradigm for an asceticism echoed down through time as some sort of ideal state for the true christian.

It falls apart, though, in the subsequent perversion of the Ideal in the very subjugation and profound misogyny that Jesus himself seems to have had no time or patience for.  Later generations of church leaders found that in order to reject sex, they had to demonize the very thing that kept pulling them away from that Ideal—the desirability of women.

(I’m speaking here in terms of heterosexuality, but the same applies to all forms of sexual intimacy.  If it was sinful for a man to lust after a woman, at least such lust was discussable, while homosexual lust brooked no dialogue whatsoever, just condemnation.)

The difficulty of this part of the standard operating procedure of christianity appears unique among the other ideals sought—honesty, humility, generosity, forgiveness.  Frankly, none of them are as difficult to achieve and live by as chastity.

The fact that sexual love can be so magnificent, so transcendent, so Other Worldly makes me wonder—has always made me wonder—if this were even an issue for Jesus.  I seriously doubt it was.  I seriously doubt it was part of his ethic.  He seems to have regularly chastised his disciples for being “boys” when it came to letting the women in as equals.  Doubtless there was a lot of competition among the Twelve for Jesus’s attention and approbation, and doubtless—because of the persistence of the aesthetic within Roman, Greek, and Hebrew cultures—there was more than a little resistance to letting women in on anything the boys did, so it would be natural, while the male competition was going on, to resent even more the intrusion of—ugh—females!

Like all oppression, misogyny on the systemic level is a control device.  The church learned early that it could control its followers best by instilling a constant state of anxiety over sin, by making them all feel guilty and requiring expiation through the intervention of priests.  If they could make you feel guilty during your most private and intimate moments, boy they had you.

Did they do this consciously?  Some probably knew very well what they were doing.  Most just followed orders.  They revered hermits and ascetics, set them up as standards—like St. Jerome, who castrated himself rather than be distracted by lust.  After a time, it becomes entrenched, and the cult of chastity becomes self-perpetuating.  It is always a mistake to think that psychological tyranny is a new thing, invented by the Bolsheviks, or that Back Then people weren’t good at it.  Nonsense.  Modern dictators study Caesar for more than mere military advice.

But was it based on Jesus’s teachings?  Likely not.  He was very much about freedom, about getting out from under the shadow of sin, about finding truth, and about people being equal.  The idea that he would somehow have found women lesser beings is not borne out in the texts, either canonical or apocryphal.

The idea that he was married is hardly the Big Deal the church makes of it.  All it would mean is that he lived life fully as a human being, eating, sleeping, working, talking…loving, in all the ways humans have of loving.  To claim, as the church does, that he was made human in order to live as us so that when he died he could die as one of us is undermined if you take away one of the most basic and powerful and intimate of human experiences.  All the rest of that list is barely more than survival.

I’ll leave the examination of why the decision was taken to subjugate women in the church to others.  It’s a lengthy topic.  Suffice it to say that they did and we’re paying the price of ridding ourselves of that condition, and have been for some time.

What interested me in the ideas behind The Da Vinci Code and it source material is the notion that the revelation of such a fact would overturn the church.  People are gullible, but stubborn.  It would do no such thing.  People would fight and cling to their faith and reject the new fact, just as they reject anything else, true or otherwise, that threatens them where they pin their hopes.  I see atheists all the time hoping for the day religion disappears (hoping, of which most faiths draw sustenance, hence an ironic condition for one who wishes faith to disappear) and thinking that this or that piece of science might dispel as if by magic the blindness of those who see the world otherwise.  Never happens.  Never will.

At best, people adapt and modify the new facts to fit with the old framework, and over time the whole thing gradually morphs into something new, even while appearing to be the same old schtick.

Therefore, I see the idea of the Priory of Scion not as a secret organization designed to guard a Great Secret until the time is right to reveal it, but as another church that has a different kind of icon at its center—a human one, but nevertheless just as potent a symbol as any other.  The bitterness of Ian McKellen’s character that when the first millennium rolled around and the Priory failed to reveal the heir misses the point.  They didn’t reveal the heir (fictionally, mind you) because it would have gotten them all killed, including the heir.  But more importantly, they would have lost their icon.  Their center.  They changed, became like the thing they sought to replace, and simply continued on, worshiping in their own idiosyncratic way.

I quite enjoyed the whole scene with The Last Supper.  Absurd in many ways, though.  While I liked the notion that the person on Jesus’s right is, in fact, Mary, it is a problematic conjecture.  The original was painted on a wall in a mess hall—the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan.  It did not fare well.  Even in 1556, one commentator described it as ‘a muddle of blots.’  It has been restored more often than any other painting by Da Vinci.  The church itself was hit by a bomb in 1943 and rubble covered the painting.  The current version is the nth restoration and no doubt a lot of it is guesswork.  It is not the only Last Supper with a beardless youth at Jesus’s side, but many have pointedly identified this person as John, his brother (another point of contention among those who find the idea that his mother had sex with Joseph offensive).  If Da Vinci had been so bold as to paint a woman, I think there would have been public controversy at the time.  But who can say?  It’s as concrete as any other aspect of this particular issue.

I think we are best left to the long and slow process of just growing up when it comes to this issue.  The supernatural elements of the church have less and less hold on more and more people.  The essential points of Jesus’s teachings do not require his deification or the intercession of divinity—except, perhaps, the divinity we ourselves possess simply as conscious beings capable of greatness.  Capable of wholeness.  Capable, finally, of love.

Officialness

It’s official.  The new Missouri State Poet Laureate is Walter Bargen, who hails from Ashland, Missouri, and who is also an acquaintance of mine.  The official announcement is here.

Yesterday I was online constantly waiting for the press announcement.  Of course, as such things go, I had to close up and go to work.  When I got home, there were messages on the phone, a score of emails…everyone knew about it before I did, it seemed.

No matter.  This is the culmination of years of effort on the part of certain members of the Missouri Center for the Book and two and half years of that during my tenure as president, and I couldn’t be happier with the outcome.

Walter is, according to those I know who know such things, a first-rate poet.  I can say with confidence that he is a decent, intelligent man who will do the office proud.  This is a  major cool event and I am delighted.

The Better Parts of ’07

I’ve seen a number of “Best of 2007” posts here and there, so I thought, after my last, rather depressing, post, I’d put something up about what I really jazzed on in 2007.

Top of the list has to be a few books. What else could you expect?

I didn’t read as much science fiction in 2007 as in the past. A great deal of my time is taken up, more and more, with research for whatever project occupies me, so I’ve spent a lot of hours reading early American history. Among a few favorites, that I would have been glad to have read at any time, are Michael Stephenson’s Patriot Battles; William Hogeland’s The Whiskey Rebellion; and Alan Taylor’s The Divided Ground. The first and last concern periods during the Revolution, the last two overlap for the period just after.

Patriot Battles is an honest, bare bones look at how the Revolutionary War got fought—the tools, the people, what it cost, the logistics, and the endless headaches. War, apart from its violent aspects, is a massive pain to undertake. Expensive, mind-bogglingly complex, frustrating…why anyone would want to bother with it, just for the bureaucratic aspects, is beyond me. But all wars tend to acquire a gloss of glamour and glory over time, our own most of all, and the Revolution probably eclipses only by WWII in flag-waving hagiographic excess of praise. Stephenson did a brave thing stripping away the myth and examining the actualities. It was valuable to me in the details of battle field mechanics and the parts about quartermastering. Plus, well written and occasionally funny.

The Whiskey Rebellion relates the tale of our nation’s first major act of repression. There are one or two aspects of the economics Hogeland seems to have overlooked (for instance, that Western Pennsylvania was denied actual currency by Congress during this period, which made what Hamilton was doing all the more criminal), but by and large he makes sensible the incomprehensible, namely why George Washington saw fit to send a massive army to Pittsburgh to crush a local rebellion that was founded on exactly the principles of unrepresented taxation he had led his country to war nearly two decades earlier.

The Divided Ground is about the process by which the native American nations got royally and thoroughly screwed by the United States. This is an account of the immediate post Revolution period, and concentrates mainly on the Iroquios Confederation in New York and Pennsylvania, and it is worthwhile perhaps to read this just after another book I very thoroughly enjoyed, which is Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, which deals with the very beginnings of this unfortunate process.

(I have to admit that while I deplore what happened to the American Indian, I do not feel personally responsible for any of it, and I do not think anything could have been done to stop it. Nor do I find it remarkable. The conquest and displacement of people from land goes back to prehistory, I’m sure–the Hebrews tossing the poor Canaanites out of the so-called Promised Land is an early example, amounting to one event in an endless line of neighbor pillaging neighbor. It’s what people do. That’s not an excuse, not forgiveness, not, heaven forbid, vindication. But I tire of people indulging self-castigation over something like this as if it were somehow unique and “we” should be thoroughly ashamed in some special way. Nonsense. We shouldn’t have done it. But then, neither should any group do it to any other group. I—me, myself, alone, in this skin—didn’t do it.)

I spent a good deal of time reading Laurie R. King’s really great Mary Russell novels. The conceit here is simple and radical—Mary Russell meets Sherlock Holmes during his semi retirement, becomes his apprentice, and by the end of the second novel is his wife.

Heresy! you say. But she sells it so well and she is such a good writer, they are an immense joy. There are eight of them so far and I have read all but the last one. I’m saving it till I know a ninth is coming out. Anyone who likes Holmes (who isn’t fanatical about canonical purity) will love these.

I also started an ambitious program of reading Thomas Pynchon. The man was such an influence in 20th Century letters, and the only thing I’d ever read before was Gravity’s Rainbow and that at a time when I really couldn’t comprehend it. That is not to say I comprehend it now, but…

Anyway, I started dutifully with V and continued on through The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, and just finished Vineland. I’d thought I might make it through Mason & Dixon and Against The Day, but alas I did not. Those two tomes I’ll deal with this year.

But I have read enough now to know that Pynchon’s entire interest is in conspiracy, the nature and permutation thereof. All his books revolve around layers of intersecting, colliding, cross-purposed conspiracy, both real and imagined. He understands that people have the capacity to sense conspiracy, but usually do not have the equipment to figure out what exactly it is—so, people being what they are, they make something up to satisfy their innate need to understand. The result is a new branching of conspiracy.

What we get is what could be termed “conspiracy of effect”, only far more entertaining than such a mundane concept suggests. Pynchon is a comedian as well as a highly literate observer. The tangles may not be to everyone’s taste (I doubt I’ll reread any of these) but just seeing where he goes with them is a Lewis Carrol-on-a-roller-coaster adventure.

I want to recommend again Julie Phillips’ biography of James Tiptree, jr. Superb. Excellent. Amazing, tragic, and extremely well-written and perceptive.

Nicola Griffith published the third Aud Torvingen novel in 2007, Always. She’s a friend, so what? If you can’t brag on your friends, what good is the internet? I’m really liking what Nicola is doing with this character. She has created a unique kind of outsider—Aud is, I have come to realize, a sexy, competent nerd. She does not understand so much of what she passes through effortlessly, but her own profoundly centered Self, instead of stuttering, stumbling, and screwing up like any other nerd/geek, is like a force of nature. People just assume she’s disinterested rather than clueless. And she’s really not clueless. Don’t get me wrong—she understands a lot about human nature, especially the dark side, but she seems utterly innocent of what it means to be “normal.” In this novel, that gap in knowledge and experience leads to some truly amusing, occasionally hilarious moments. Aside from being a first rate thriller, Always is genuinely insightful.

Which leads to the other friend who published this year. Kelley Eskridge wrote one of the best near-future SF novels in the last decade, Solitaire. It’s being developed into a film and I can’t wait. Kelley herself is working on the screenplay.

But Kelley is also a damn good short story writer. Her first collection came out in 2007, Dangerous Space, and I urge you all to go get it. The title novella is one of the best music stories I’ve ever read. I posted a review of it on my blog on MySpace, so go there for more, but I repeat, this is great stuff.

Another friend of mine published a novel in 2007. Allen Steele’s Spindrift is a first-rate SF thriller in the tradition of…

Well, Allen spent a lot of his career being called the Next Heinlein. That’s an overworked comparison and I actually think it’s inaccurate in Allen’s case. He’s much closer to Gordon R. Dickson than Heinlein, but even closer, I think, to Mack Reynolds. (I’d even say he’s closer still to Poul Anderson except he doesn’t indulge Anderson flare for Errol Flynn-type characters and improbable plot twists, but take something like Anderson’s Star Fox or The Enemy Stars or Tales of the Flying Mountains and the comparison makes sense.) People, however, will know who Gordie Dickson was quicker than they will Mack, and I hasten to add that I mean Mack Reynolds at his best.

Spindrift is a slice of his Coyote universe, which is shaping up into a nice body of work for Allen. It’s more faceted with more possibilities, the kind of Swiss Army Knife concept writers envy. It’s a first contact novel and has at its core a couple of variations on the idea that provide a nice fresh sensation.

Music-wise this past year, I’m not sure how to characterize it. My favorite new discovery is the East Village Opera Company. I hate opera. I love this. It is tremendous, over-the-top, pompous, and musically ambitious. But otherwise, it’s hard to say what I found that’s new. I haven’t been buying much new music, and what I’ve gotten has been given to me. There’s a vendor that shows up every year at the local convention who sells small-label electronica. He has the works broken down into comparisons with various periods of Tangerine Dream and I have only ever bought one disc from him I didn’t like, but I use it as wall paper for when I’m working. I can’t write to vocals, so it’s jazz, classical, or this. A smattering of titles includes the artists Roedelius, Navigator, Max van Richter, Under the Dome, Steve Joliffe, Lightwave, and Anon.

Movies, similar problem. We don’t go to the movies anymore. Habit born out of long stretches of poverty. But we’ve been borrowing dvds like crazy. Among the television shows I’m most impressed with, we’ve found Bones, House, Battlestar Galactica and I have fallen in love with the new Doctor Who and especially the spin-off Torchwood. The latter is like MIB meets the X-Files. But it’s like British, y’know, but the star is an American, but the main female lead is…hmm…uh….yes, well, I think she’s just amazing.

What impresses me most about both these shows is the level of writing. It’s rarely less than Good, often Damn Good, and occasionally Great.

Biggest disappointment has to be the SciFi Channel’s lame attempt at retooling Flash Gordon. Look, folks, a word. If you’re gonna do something from the 30s, either take a page from Tim Burton’s playbook, or be bloody faithful to the original. Trying to make it contemporary and current and somehow more “plausible” (in this context I’m not even sure what that means) usually leads to boring if not embarrassing. I feel sorry for the woman playing Dale Arden—she’s got some talent and boy is she hot, but this is not something for her resume.

The biggest surprise movie-wise for me in the past year has been Casino Royale. Yes, the new Bond—Daniel Craig—is very good, and this movie is very good, and it leads me to hope that they will continue in this vein, relying on good storytelling and genuine emotional truth, rather than gimmicks and gadgets. It’s hard to see that this came out of the same production company, it’s so different. (Maybe this movie didn’t come out in ’07, but I didn’t see it till this year.)

I am certainly missing a few things. When I remember them, I’ll mention them. But this is a fairly full list of what I found worth doing in the arts this past year. I’m looking forward to seeing what 2008 has to offer.

Back now to your regularly scheduled programming.