Saturday, June 5, 2010

What Do All These People Have in Common?

You're absolutely right!  THEY ALL HAVE BAD HAIR!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Killing Me Softly

When I was a kid and had to memorize the Ten Commandments, number 6 (Protestant version) of the Decalogue stated, in absolute, albeit archaic, English:  "Thou shalt not kill."

No one bothered to ask what, exactly, should not be killed.  Certainly we didn't worry about killing insects or rodents; most of my classmates lived on farms and routinely helped slaughter livestock.  All of us enjoyed the (well-cooked) flesh of domestic animals.

And no one questioned the moral legitimacy of killing other humans in cases of self-defense, in judgments involving "capital" crimes, in wars against national enemies.

Abortion was never mentioned, not even in whispers.  Remember:  those were the times when the word "pregnant" was banned from our black and white TVs.  Lucille Ball was "expecting"--and, until rather late in the "I Love Lucy" series, I think, she and Ricky slept in separate twin beds.

Presumably, then, since it was so damned hard to MAKE a fetus, no one wanted to think about destroying it.

But I have digressed a bit.  My central thought is one to which I frequently return:  the assertion of many of my friends--people whom I love--that "life is sacred."  I understand what they mean:  they mean human life is sacred.  And they base this belief upon that Commandment I cited earlier.

Furthermore, they (unlike the Lucy and Ricky watchers) are, quite specifically, thinking about human fetuses.  When they say "Life is sacred", they actually mean "Thou shalt not kill human fetuses."

Their interpretation of the moral imperative is absolute in this case.  Yet it is NOT absolute in the other cases I mentioned above (self-defense, capital punishment, war).  Why not?

Regular readers of this blog know that I am not a great fan of biblical literalism--or indeed, of the Bible itself as anything more than an anthology of mythology (valiant attempts to explain the unexplainable) and spiritual reflections / exercises.  So I do not feel intellectually or morally compelled to accept as binding the strictures of  Exodus 20 or Exodus 34 or Deuteronomy 5.  Still, since so many people DO base their attitudes on these chapters, it might be worthwhile to explore what the ancient writers actually intended when they wrote the Sixth (or the Fifth) Commandment.

Christian conservatives, of course, insist that Yahweh (shrouded by more smoke than the Wizard of Oz in his command booth) actually hand-delivered the Commandments to Moses sometime around 1500 BCE (The New Living Bible says 1445 BCE exactly).  Most serious biblical scholars, on the other hand, believe that the Commandments were first codified in the 8th Century BCE (between 950 and 750 BCE)--and that they represent a kind of compilation of traditions from several sources (usually called J, E, and D).  The "truth" of their origin can probably never be definitively proved.  Never mind.  What matters is what they meant.  

There is, for instance, considerable discussion about the verb "to kill."  Some contemporary translations of Commandment 5/6 prefer "murder" to "kill."  "You shall not murder," says the New Revised Standard Version.  And, in his book And God Said, Hebrew scholar, Joel Hoffmann, maintains that even "murder" is too vague a term.  Hoffmann asserts that the original Hebrew means something like "to kill illegally."

In other words:  "You shall not kill illegally."

Which would conveniently leave the door open for legal killing.  Such as, perhaps, self-defense, capital punishment, warfare...and...and...abortion????

Goodness knows (I was going to write "God knows"), the Old Testament certainly authorizes plenty of legal killing (for offenses ranging from prostitution to masturbation (Onan) to proselytizing to worshiping false gods to premarital intercourse to communicating with the dead.  And let us not forget "men lying with men."

In ancient Israel, who was responsible for deciding what was "legal" killing as opposed to "illegal" killing?  If it was GOD, then shouldn't the same rules apply today?  One assumes that GOD'S laws do not change.  Obviously, however, the legal killings I enumerate above are no longer acceptable--and I doubt that many of the "Life is Sacred" people would disagree.

Is it possible, then, that the Commandment is saying nothing more than this:  "Don't kill anyone if your society and your society's lawmakers tell you it's illegal to do so"?  Or, contrariwise, it's OK to kill other humans if such killing has been legalized by the authorities?  I suspect that my Life is Sacred friends would have trouble with this interpretation also.

Still, that IS the way human culture works, isn't it? Throughout history, human beings have obligingly killed other human beings when authorized to do so by either rulers, laws or general consensus.  Dang, this is a somewhat unsatisfying relativism, for me as well as for my friends.  I wonder if we can build a system of ethics on something OTHER than these maddening (and self-contradictory) thou-shalt-nots.  To be continued sometime...when my puzzler is less sore.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Memorial Day Lies

It was a gorgeous weekend.  Memorial Day.  Bratwursts on the grill, tractor pulling contests, marching bands, patriotic speeches, the beginning of summer.  Now we can all wear our white shoes again.  Life is good.

But something about official Memorial Day celebrations always makes me uneasy.  From Arlington National Cemetery to the Lake Park Bandshell in Winona, Minnesota the air and airwaves are bombarded by a jumble of grandiloquent discourse and rousing, flag-waving music--punctuated, but only occasionally--by sincerity, sorrow and genuine remembrance of real people.

The prevailing theme of the day is both trite and cruel:  Thank God for all those soldiers who died so that I can grill my bratwursts "in freedom."  In other words:  I feel a little guilty about never giving a rat's ass about anyone else, especially about "those" people down the street (is there some way we can get them deported?).  So, to assuage my conscience, I'll join in a nice little party to honor those poor bastards who had the bad luck to "give their lives for freedom."  I'm so glad it was them and not me.

God bless America.  Fourscore and seven years ago.  The land of the free and the home of the brave.  Life is good.

Well, not for those guys in the cemetery, of course.  Who were they again?  OK.  Let's try to remember.  They were good guys, all of them.  All of them went to war to make the world safe for bratwurst, American style.  All of them.  Yeah, even LeRoy and Jose, I suppose.

And think about all the noble causes they advanced:  they freed us from the tax-and-spend British; they emancipated the slaves; they liberated the Nazi concentration camps.  They did the Christian thing:  they laid down their lives for their friends (us).

Only, only, only.  Most of them DIDN'T.  Most of them had no desire or intent to lay down their lives for anyone, least of all us sons of bitches.  Probably most of them intensely disliked great numbers of people in their hometowns, just as intensely as those fellow citizens hated them.  And undoubtedly, most of them were in the army/navy/air force because they either HAD to be or because they needed the money.  Most likely they weren't our friends.  And even if they were, they didn't want to die for us. What a crock. 

Nor should we forget that our armies also fought to exterminate the Native Americans, defend slavery, build a colonial empire in the Philippines, prop up a corrupt government in Vietnam, ensure an unrestricted flow of oil from the Middle East, etc., etc.  

Let freedom ring.  Life is good. 

I hope you see that I'm NOT denigrating these "noble dead."  Rather, I'm criticizing the inauthenticity and the hypocrisy of the living--who lie to themselves and to each other in order to justify that which, in the end, is rarely justifiable. Soldiers die for all kinds of causes, most of them having nothing whatsoever to do with high ideals.  Once in a while, when the politicians themselves are high-minded, the wars they get us into are also, in some sense at least, "noble."  (I concur with Winston Churchill, for instance, that the American Civil War was "the noblest and least avoidable of all the great mass-conflicts of which till then there was record."  Probably a similar thumbs up could be given to World War II.)  But it's just disingenuous to assert that most soldiers died for "freedom" or for much of anything meaningful at all.

They died because of human greed, fear, incompetence, prejudice--and above all, because of human tribalism:  our way rather than your way.  The "freedom" that they fought for was, by and large, nothing more than the freedom to cook our brats OUR way.  Who cares if the Germans invented the damned things.

And now, what about "freedom fries"?  Down with the French!

Memorial Day, thus, often makes me sad.  I'm not really mourning the individual soldiers--that's hard to do unless one actually knew them.  Rather, I'm mourning the horrible LOSS, the horrible STUPIDITY, the horrible WASTE.  And my skin crawls as I listen to the sanctimonious, self-justifying speeches about how the noble dead did not die in vain.  Yada, yada, yada.  Pass the bratwurst.

Do we, the living, REALLY (to quote Lincoln) "highly resolve" to do anything at all?  If so, we should highly resolve to overcome tribalism and stop glorifying war.  Yes, by all means, let's try to remember why those poor bastards died:  they died because WE, the living, were too stupid to figure out how to keep them alive. They died and it's OUR fault. Shame on us.

LIFE is good, not death.  So can we please stop celebrating death on Memorial Day?