Friday, December 21, 2012

Snow Blind


The cardinal at the feeder knows I’m here

Peering from behind the sliding door.

He flutters his denial that I matter--

He must eat; his very soul demands it

And there’s snow, a curse, a blessing--

Never mind.  The black of sunflowers cracked

And spilled, wards off all human menace

With promises of safe and woody green.

He is sated now and leaves me to my dream.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom

I've just returned from a three-week trip to Asia.  Most of the trip was a cruise, aboard the Diamond Princess, involving one-day visits to a large number of ports:  Tianjin, Busan, Nagasaki, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Nha Tranh, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, Bangkok.  We added extra days in Beijing and Bangkok.  Still, our shore excursions amounted to little more than brief glimpses of a city's life--sightseeing without much depth.

Superficial acquaintance, then, but still enough contact to prompt me to reflect (perhaps foolishly) on what I DID observe.

Let me begin by ruminating about Confucius, Mao, and Thomas Jefferson.  It seems to me that, when they're honest with themselves, Americans are usually inclined to equate personal happiness with the possession of wealth.  Oh, they know that money can't buy everything, but the general consensus is that the acquiring wealth is the best thing we can do to increase our chances of being happy and of obtaining status and esteem in our society.  Clearly, we tell ourselves, that is what Jefferson meant when he claimed (following Locke) that all human beings have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (a pleasant-sounding synonym for Locke's more blunt "property.")

I guess Confucius, too, believed in pursuing happiness.  But he insisted that the deepest form of self-satisfaction resulted from serving an entity greater than oneself--the family, the community, the nation, the common culture (and all its traditions).  Not that he (or, at least, his interpreters) believed that acquiring wealth was not a good thing:  it's just that, for the Confucian, an individual's self-worth depends, not upon his personal fortune alone, but upon the fortune of the collectivities to which he belongs and contributes.

Hence, the aggressive, money-obsessed Shanghainsese might have motives and goals which are quite different from those of aggressive, money-obsessed New Yorker.  The Shanghainese wants to affirm his self-worth by contributing to the well-being of a unit to which he belongs, by being "good" at providing for, advancing and perpetuating this unit.  The New Yorker wants to affirm his self-worth by being "good" at providing for himself (and only secondarily for, perhaps, a spouse or a child; certainly he has virtually no interest in the community or the nation).

It's silly to assert (as Mao and the communists did/do) that the Chinese are not or should not be individualists or capitalists. They clearly ARE.  But I'm convinced that their individualism is so permeated with Confucian hierarchical values that almost no Chinese "individual" ever thinks of himself and his own self-actualization as the ultimate raison d'être of human existence--the absolute Good.

On the other hand, it's quite easy for an American, be he a businessman or an artist, to believe that the fulfillment of his own deeply subjective (and self-chosen) desires is, and should be, the definition of happiness--the absolute Good.

And so, even the greedy, grasping, avaricious street merchants in Shanghai and Guangzhou tend to regard themselves as functioning "together with others" in this struggle to get rich (even if the "others' are limited to the extended family)--capitalists with at least somewhat socialistic goals. Whereas the typical American is in the game alone--and for his own sake.

Perhaps this ingrained Confucianism is why the modern "communist" Chinese seem almost as willing as were their ancestors in the Qing, Ming, Song and Tang dynasties to submit to the authority of a central government claiming to serve the common good.  A Shanghainese restauranteur may yearn to own a car, but he understands (albeit grudgingly) why the government (via lottery and related fees) makes it nearly impossible for all but the very rich and "successful" to possess a vehicle in a city comprised of narrow alleyways and densely overpopulated neighborhoods.  He would be less accepting, of course, if this same government did not provide excellent and inexpensive public transport via subways, trams and buses.  In other words, if the government is going to LIMIT INDIVIDUAL freedoms, it cannot hope to be successful unless it PROVIDES COMPENSATION by actually serving the OVERALL GOOD.  This is what the emperors claimed to do (and what the good emperors actually did); this is what Mao claimed he would do--but failed miserably to achieve during the disastrous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution; this is what the current regime, ever since Deng Xiaoping, has struggled to do, with appreciable success, especially in the cities--by inventing and introducing a market-based but still unmistakably socialist economic system--an odd but pragmatically effective amalgam of marxist orthodoxy and free trade entrepreneurism.

It seems to me, then, that deep down in the Chinese subconscious, the emperor still demands obedience--and still commands a measure of respect, even if, on the surface, rebellion rages and protesters cynically (or self-righteously) justify their dissent by repeating the old adage, "the mountains are high and the emperor is far away." Am I wrong about this?  Maybe.  I'm very much an outsider.

But I'm not an outsider in America, so I'm certainly not wrong about an irony I can't resist underlining, to wit:  a considerable number of Americans--undoubtedly among the most freewheeling and unrestrained peoples of the earth--complain bitterly that our mountains aren't nearly high enough and that our "emperor" in Washington is so oppressively nearby that his gendarmes are even now surrounding the houses of all freedom-loving citizens and readying themselves to deprive true Americans of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Gosh, do you think Confucius and Mao will be taking over soon?  Your opinions please: Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Ignorance Is Bliss

Christian orthodoxy has a schizophrenic and ultimately self-destructive relationship with education and learning.  On the one hand, the Church has encouraged the faithful, ranging from erudite theologians to amateurish Sunday School teachers, to "think" about metaphysical subjects (i.e., things that cannot actually be apprehended/known by the operation of human senses). Indeed, Christianity's greatest minds have traditionally devoted themselves unstintingly to such speculative thinking about will-o-the wispy stuff that can never be grasped:  Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Tillich.  But on the other hand, the religious establishment has historically harbored deep suspicions of any intellectual activity that might weaken or discredit the supposedly physical (i.e. provable) underpinnings of their metaphysical  (i.e., unprovable) constructs and thereby bring the entire airy-fairy edifice tumbling to the ground.  St. Paul, for instance, attempting to defuse doubts about a mythology that, even in the first century CE sounded pretty far-fetched, says, in effect, that it is reason itself that doesn't make sense:  "the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom" (I Corinthians 1).  Later, St. John Chrysostom urges us to "restrain our own reasoning, and empty our mind of secular learning, in order to provide a mind swept clear for the reception of divine words."*  And, mincing no words, Pope Gregory (the Great!?) loftily commands us to suppress all inquiring thoughts whatsoever:  "the wise should be advised to cease from their knowledge."*

In other words, ignorance is bliss--and knowing nothing is holy.  Amen.

The theists' conundrum, however, is the obvious fact that human beings cannot actually function without exercising their reason, without seeking knowledge.  After all, Adam and Eve, the story goes, ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.  Sure, it was original sin--they were exceedingly naughty in their efforts to shed purely animal instincts and assume the godlike powers of discernment and free-will.  Still, there is just no going back--no way After The Fall that we can survive individually or as a species without learning, without understanding, without reasoning and without making informed choices based on that reasoning.  Knowing nothing may indeed be holy, but--for human beings at any rate--it is also fatal.

Thus, even the most zealous of God's fools must grudgingly come round to admitting this fundamental truth:  humans require at least some education.  And countless Christians--the medieval "schoolmen" who founded universities, the American Puritans who fostered literacy so that the Bible could be read by all, the Jesuits who recognized that education could be a formidable weapon in the war for converts--all these pious believers found some way to harmonize their need to know truth with their need to believe nonsense.  Cognitive dissonance of the first water.

For many years, I, too, practiced such mental juggling and compartmentalization.  Living an essentially reason-based life, I nonetheless continued to pay lip-service, especially on Sunday mornings, to blatantly unreasonable fairy-tales dreamed up by guys like Paul, Chrysostom, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Tillich,

Until finally it dawned upon me that the essence of education was acquiring and applying knowledge of what is knowable, NOT knowing a lot of fantastical dogma about what is unknowable in the first place.  In other words, in later life, I finally picked up a few of what the psychologists call "higher order thinking skills." At last I am learning (and it's a slow and painful process) to apply my reason exclusively to that which can be known and to eliminate from my life behaviors and attitudes that are either extraneous or inimical to that knowledge.

Ironically, then, I--who so prided myself on my ability to "get kids to think critically"--must now confess that in my own intellectual life I have frequently contented myself with the sort of mechanical, survival-level thinking that Benjamin Bloom (he of the famous "Taxonomy") would characterize as mere "comprehension" or "application."  For all my bookishness, mine has been a surprisingly unexamined life (was I too afraid? probably).  Rarely have I forced myself to analyze, evaluate, create--those higher-order behaviors that Bloom in particular and humans in general--despite the fustigations of Gregory the Great--most admire.  I have been, for the most part, a "low-level" thinker, rarely questioning established order, relishing the mindlessness of religious ceremonies, plodding complacently along in the painless game of follow-the-leader.

When St. Paul invented Christianity, he must have suspected that most people are just as lazy as I, and just as inclined to low-order, undemanding thinking.  He also must have sensed that such careless cognition would guarantee success and dominion for his new religion.  He was right.

Because low-order theological thinking, even in its most rapturous and convoluted flights of polysyllabic prosody, remains inescapably schizophrenic: an attempt to use reason and logic to explain (and control) that which is unknowable--and therefore inexplicable and uncontrollable.  Not only a perversion of reason, but also a complete waste of time.

I am truly obsessive, aren't I?  Though I intended that this blog entry should be about education and the importance of critical thinking in human self-actualization, I have instead, once again, engaged in a Rant Against Religion, another KK take on "Ecrasez l'infâme."  Well, so be it.  But let me, finally, make my point about education and religious orthodoxy:  it seems to me that religion doesn't mind if you think--provided your thinking remains at the lower levels of Bloom's Taxonomy--i.e., if you learn that tomatoes will die without water and if you apply this understanding by watering your plants.  But religion--and, it would seem, today's Republican Party--cannot easily tolerate analysis, synthesis, evaluation or--above all--creativity--i.e., a global understanding of how tomatoes interact with the ecosphere.  Such high-order mental activity--because it frees the individual from blind allegiance to established authority and "fixed ideas"--threatens the very existence of all that relies upon illogic and simple-mindedness to exploit and control others.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the Republican Party of Texas (dominated by fundamentalist Evangelicals and cynical oil barons) recently formulated a blatantly anti-education plank for its 2012 platform.  "We oppose," declare the Texas Republicans, "the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills...which...have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority." In other words, the Texas Republicans have aligned themselves with the know-nothings and the holy fools:  keep everyone stupid and obedient to conventional practices (as I was for so long) so that they'll never know what they're missing.  Ignorance (in the weak and disenfranchised) is indeed bliss (for those already in control).

Dunce caps, anyone?

*cited in Freeman, Charles. The Closing of the Western Mind. New York: Vintage, 2005.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Credulity and Crap

Some time ago, thinking myself quite perceptive and witty, I made this observation on Facebook:

"People's willingness to believe a lie is directly proportional to the outrageousness of the claim.  The more improbable it is, the more willing they are to believe."

To which a Facebook friend commented drily, "Well, duh, everyone knows that." What? You mean my epiphany about human credulity wasn't quite as original as I had thought?  You mean everyone else has also noted that humans delight in fabricating, disseminating, and (ultimately) actually believing stuff that is not merely false but egregiously so?

OK, so we can all agree that a lot of the "truths" out there are, in fact, fictions invented by someone for some reason (perhaps just the pleasure of creating a good story) and then glommed onto by other people whose senses are excited or whose interests are served by believing and perpetuating the tale--with, perhaps, some embellishments and additions.

Generally, however, we don't agree that our most cherished beliefs are such fabrications.  Other people, though--God, yes, other people will believe just about anything (and, as my little trait d'esprit suggests, the more outrageous the claim, the more likely other people are to believe it).

So it's quite humbling and not a little embarrassing to realize, at age 68, that most of the unquestioned certitudes that I, personally, have espoused and preached for most of my life are also--almost certainly-- egregious falsehoods.  Because, you see, at various times of my life I have believed, more or less fervently, all of the following rubbish:  America is the Land of the Free, Democracy is the Best Form of Government, Money Doesn't Matter, You Can Be Anything You Set Your Mind to Being, Masturbation Drives One Mad, Jesus Rose From the Dead, Marriage Has Always Been Between One Man and One Woman, Blessed Mary Is Ever Virgin, Jesus Loves Me, Eggs Are Bad for You, There Are Seven Intelligences, Everyone Has Certain Natural Rights, Personal Property and Possessions Are Among These Rights, God Is Everywhere, Cleanliness Is Next To Godliness,  The Natural Approach Is the Only Effective Way to Teach Languages, YadaYadaYadaYada.

What a load of crap has been weighing me down!

After one of my pompous lectures about Greek philosophy, a student once asked me, "So what, exactly, is truth supposed to set me free from?"  At the time, I couldn't answer very well.  But now I can:  from crap.  From the intellectual angst of trying to rationalize, reconcile, and justify all of these patently irrational (but culturally consecrated, hence deeply embedded) lies.

What a relief to be able to admit, finally, that the Jesus fables aren't any truer than the far-fetched mythologies of other religions, that you can't get things by merely wishing for them, that human interactions such as economics and politics are quite simply too complicated to be systematically understood by anyone, that there are no human rights built into the structure of the universe, that any God that might exist is necessarily unknowable and irrelevant, that the only sure good is conduct that advances the well-being of humanity, even though humanity in all its glory commands less than an iota of a speck of a tittle of significance within the infinite vastness of the universe.

Oof.  Just let that all go.  Give it to Jesus--or any of the other gods in that illustrious pantheon of failed saviors dreamed up and passed on by the credulous "crap inventors" who, we really must admit it now, are not just others, but ourselves as well.

Bon débarras!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Intactivism: Somewhat of a Stretch

When I was in San Francisco, in September, Carole and I girded our loins (unlike a great many other attendees) and spent a boozily voyeuristic afternoon at the Folsom Street Fair, a celebration of all that is naughty, kinky, or merely unconventional in (mostly) gay life and attitudes.

I took lots of pictures of pot-bellied men wearing leather underwear ingeniously designed to expose everything that underwear normally hides.  I watched a naked, Brazilian-waxed woman in 6-inch heels being led about on a  rhinestone dog leash and given occasional nipple-shaped treats as a reward for licking her handler's breast. And I gaped, from afar, at a line-up of Bay Area Intactivists, many of whom were flaunting penises with foreskins stretched about two extra inches by some sort of artfully inserted bolt.

I had never heard of "intactivists" before, but there they were, in their dangling splendor, smiling broadly for the cameras and handing out colorful brochures denouncing the evil of "male genital mutilation"--i.e., circumcision. (I was, of course, all the more fascinated to discover such vehement defenders of the 'natural' state at this fair celebrating all that is artful, artificial, contrived, and defiantly anti-missionary-posture nature!)

Apparently, the intactivists are a mostly political organization,  concerned more about foreskin ethics than esthetics (though, clearly, they DO enjoy the beauty of a nice uncut dick--as did Michelangelo, who couldn't bring himself to circumcise his David, future king of Israel).  Accordingly, in 2011, they were instrumental in introducing a ballot initiative to ban male circumcision in San Francisco.  Alas, a spoil-sport judge ruled that, for the time being at least, male genital integrity was less important than the religious beliefs of parents who might seek salvation by sacrificing their sons' foreskins to Yahweh or Allah or Quetzalcoatl.  The intactivists, aroused, vowed to take their fight to Congress.  Grand bien que cela leur fasse!

So, are uncut penises superior (as the Emperor Hadrian asserted, contemplating perhaps his boyfriend Antinous)?  Is "natural" better (as Tristram Shandy must have felt after being penilely savaged by an unhinged window sash)?  Should we let the individual male decide when he has attained adulthood and has had the opportunity to "test drive" his hot rod?  Or is it all Much Ado About Not Very Much (unless "it" has been stretched an additional two inches)?

Probably the latter. Still, as I read one of those colorful brochures with illustrated testimonials, I did begin to think about how basically silly, arbitrary--and yes, unwittingly cruel-- infant circumcision is.  Parents mess up our minds quite enough as it is, couldn't they at least leave our dicks alone for us to do what we want with?  Like, you know, inserting a bolt in the preputial opening and posing thus accoutered for photo-taking voyeurs at street fairs?

Thursday, May 10, 2012


There are communists everywhere, especially in Congress.  Some of these commies are also nazis, but most are even worse than nazis because they advocate socialized medicine and high-speed trains.  Communists also support such evils as same-sex marriage, stimulus spending, wind energy and teaching evolution in schools.  Nancy Pelosi is the head of these communists.  She has had a face lift and a breast augmentation, neither of which is authorized in Leviticus.

Women should not be allowed to vote.  Extending the franchise to females was a communist plot of the worst kind, since it encouraged women (Nancy Pelosi) to run around with butcher knives cutting off their husbands' penises.  Men without penises cannot properly run the world and, if their balls are also missing, they just get fat and become rotten bowlers.

Obesity is another problem brought on by communism.  Communist overspending in Washington has funded programs like school hot lunches and food stamps for welfare queens, and these programs, in turn, have provided food for people who don't deserve to eat.  If there were less free communist food, poor people would be emaciated, not overweight.  This would ensure a much lower nationwide average in the obesity statistics and once again, the USA would be number one!

The thing about communists is this:  they want to DO stuff.  Well, doing stuff has never worked and it never will.  Look at Hitler.  He tried to do things and he got shot down by the USA.  Also, those commies in China, they're poisoning our food supply and making women abort all but one baby.  Abortion is against God's laws and against nature.  Killing should be either holy, as in ritual sacrifice (Jesus, underwear bombers) or natural (starvation, war, vigilantism).  Usually, it should be done with a gun, since guns are both holy and natural.

And that's another thing.  The commies in Congress (and in Europe and other socialist places like Iceland and Canada) want to take away our guns.  Pelosi's goons are already scheming with Obama (who was born in Communist East Africa where even the Mau Mau couldn't acquire adequate firearms) to figure out a way to round up all the guns in America and dump them in the deepest cracks of the Marianas Trench.  We must not allow this to happen, people!  It's so obvious: if we lose our right to kill, we lose our right to live.  And also our freedom to choose deep dish or thin crust extra crispy.

So I beg you: stop the communists now!  If we don't act to take back our country, pretty soon we'll be forced to marry our same-sex cousins and have breast augmentation surgery besides.  Shoot to kill and take no prisoners!  Sic semper tyrannis (or whatever).

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Madness in America

Every day, I grow more aware of the limits of human reason, of just how impossible it is for our little, finite minds to grasp absolute truths (if, indeed, such absolutes exist at all).  Still, since unlike other animals we have relatively few hard-wired instincts, our reason seems to be the best tool we possess for coping with reality.

The faithful of many "true" religions will here object that divine revelation either entirely supersedes or substantially supplements the inevitably tentative and mutable conclusions obtained by the exercise of reason alone.

The revelation of which divinity, though?  As announced by which divinely-inspired prophet? As written down in which divinely-dictated holy book?  Surely, the very proliferation of gods and religions argues against the actual existence of any super-natural, super-rational authority.

And besides, wouldn't such a wonderful supplement to human reason be available--as one of those few hard-wired instincts--to ALL human beings?

Well, who knows?  I'm using rational thought to discuss something that (if it exists) transcends rational thought and cannot therefore be discussed using rational thought.  Dead end.

So I return to the only tool I can be sure of, as tentative and as circumscribed as it is:  my personal REASON.  I understand that no one can understand all of reality--and that, moreover, I myself cannot understand a great deal of what many others can understand.  Still, provided I do the best I can to inform myself and provided further that I accept the objective evidence afforded me by my senses and by scientifically provable truths, I must rely upon the revelations of my subjective thought processes, and upon these revelations only:  because how in the world could I ever decide which of the "divine" revelations is more reliable than my personal thinking?

OK.  That is the premise underlying (and, I hope, justifying) this blog entry:  according to my personal thinking, much of what is going on in the world--and particularly in my own country--is absolutely contrary to reason, absolutely irrational, absolutely MAD.

As I recall, when Alice told the Cheshire Cat that she didn't want to "go among mad people," the Cat just purred sardonically, "Oh, you can't help that.  We're all mad here."

Well, perhaps we ARE all mad.  But I wonder if some people aren't just a wee bit MORE mad than I am.  For instance, I can make no sense whatsoever of the following notions/ ideas/ theories/ practices that I read about or witness on a nearly daily basis in the America of 2012 CE:

  • Cutting government jobs will save the government money and will thus help create jobs;
  • We can shrink our way to growth; 
  • The more guns everyone has, the safer everyone will be;
  • Not talking about homosexuality in schools will make homosexuality go away;
  • Evolution should not be taught because some people "oppose" it;
  • The poor don't pay their fair share of taxes;
  • Cutting taxes for the rich will create more jobs, because the rich will automatically want to spend their additional wealth on hiring poor people;
  • America has to support Israel because Israel is "democratic."
  • Democracy is always the best system of government for everybody;
  • Banning same-sex marriage will save opposite-sex marriage;
  • Banning same-sex marriage will save the Caucasian race;
  • Overall health care costs will decline if we insure fewer people;
  • Corporations are people and have the same rights as an individual citizen;
  • Fertilized eggs are people and have the same rights as an individual citizen;
  • American wars in the Middle East are defending American "freedom"
  • The Constitution was divinely inspired;
  • If we make their lives miserable, illegal immigrants will "self-deport";
  • Socialism is evil and anti-American;
  • Socialized medicine, indeed anything "socialized" is inferior, inefficient and dangerous;
  • The left is conducting a "war" against Christianity;
  • The world is going to end on December 21, 2012 because that's when the Mayan calendar ends;
  • Religious freedom (especially that of the Catholic Church) is being threatened by Obama's health care policies;
  • Too many people have the right to vote:  limits need to be imposed;
  • Social Security and Medicare and other social programs are misguided because in "helping" people, they encourage dependency instead of self-reliance;
  • The War on Drugs is working;
  • The war in Afghanistan is winnable (and necessary);
  • Government spending on wars and defense should be increased; government spending on infrastructure, health, education, etc., should be decreased or eliminated;
  • Government austerity is the solution to financial crises created by big banks;
  • Homosexuality can (and should) be cured by prayer and aversion therapy;
  • Christian fundamentalism is true; Islamic fundamentalism is false;
  • Social Darwinism is a legitimate political, economic and ethical stance;
  • Obama was born in Kenya;
  • Illegal immigrants are stealing jobs from "real" Americans;
  • Marriage has always (and everywhere) been between one man and one woman;
  • The Civil War had nothing to do with slavery or racism;
  • The only legitimate and efficacious form of birth control is abstinence.

You will notice that most of the foregoing ravings are favored especially by Republicans.  That's because it appears (to me, anyway) that the majority of regular Republicans have been bitten by rabid demogogues within their ranks and have begun, almost literally, to foam at the mouth.

But some of my fellow Democrats are also spouting (and posting and tweeting) stuff that my common sense must repudiate.  Here are a just a few examples of Democratic twaddle:

  • All cultures and all civilizations are of equal merit and are equally "good";
  • All people have a god-given right to get married, to whomever they choose;
  • Public service unions, teachers' unions, etc., are primarily interested in serving the public;
  • Capitalism is a corrupt system and cannot be made to work;
  • It is not necessary for all Americans to be fluent in English; let people use whatever language they want;
  • All is relative.

No, I'm quite sure that all is NOT relative, though my unaided (because there IS no aid) reason cannot equally illuminate and appraise the moral landscape of all portions of reality.  Many gray areas persist, much ambiguity remains.  Still, the insanity (and inanity) of the reasoning cited in the foregoing lists seems so egregious that I will, Cheshire-Cat-like, maintain that "we're all mad here"--at least until I'm proven (with genuine evidence) to be wrong.

Meanwhile, what do you make of this sign on a hotel wall in New York?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Pretty Is What Pretty Looks Like

My great niece (grand niece?--I'm never sure which term is correct) has a favorite word--in fact, it's nearly the only word she utters comprehensibly with a discernibly consistent meaning (c'mon, she's only 15 months old):  "pretty."

Red Easter eggs are "pretty."  Cookies of any kind are "pretty."  Ribbons, scarves and stuffed monkeys are "pretty."   Likewise, the edifices that she constructs with colored blocks, the squiggly lines she draws with crayons, the patterns she assembles with scraps of torn paper toweling. Whatever she approves of, wants to play with, or wishes to eat is pronounced,  equally and adamantly, "pretty."

She is thus well on her way to becoming a real human being, equating anything attractive or desirable with beauty--and anything "beautiful" with  goodness.  But is she also, thereby, falling victim to what Tolstoy denounced as a serious "delusion":  the notion that the terms beauty and goodness are somehow synonymous and denotatively congruent?

It is easy to see that the satisfaction of our appetites is the source of this conflation, since that which gives us pleasure appears, at least on the face of it, both attractive (beautiful) and valuable (good).  Only upon reflection (something we often resist) do we realize that our brain could be playing tricks on us, establishing an exact equivalency where only a partial coincidence can be legitimately deduced.

Take, for example, this syllogism--which, if we accept the validity of the initial premise, is sound:   All pleasurable things are good; Beautiful things are pleasurable.  Therefore, beautiful things are good.  

But tinker a bit with the distribution of terms, and we render the syllogism invalid--and silly:  All good things are pleasurable; Beautiful things are pleasurable; Therefore beautiful things are good.  

Or this syllogism, equally invalid because of the "somes" and "alls":    All beautiful things are good.  Some good things are not pleasurable. Therefore some beautiful things are not pleasurable.

We could go on and on, rearranging the premises, distributing, not distributing, or restricting the terms "pleasure," "goodness," "beauty." Ultimately, though, we must conclude that yes, beautiful things are pleasurable and yes, beautiful things are good.  But not ALL good things are pleasurable and, perhaps, not ALL beautiful things are good.  Partial coincidence, not exact equivalency.

Interestingly, despite her obsession with prettiness, my little niece herself must possess a vague awareness of this truth.  Though I have never heard her declare her mashed carrots to be "pretty," she seems nonetheless quite willing to consume them, thereby tacitly acknowledging that they possess some measure of "goodness."

Isn't it fascinating, then, how desperately we cling to our delusion of absolute equivalency and congruence?  I know that people sometimes say, "Pretty is as pretty does" (a dictum which rather too elliptically suggests an awareness that goodness transcends mere beauty).  But in our daily lives, we seldom behave in accordance with that soggy platitude.  Rather the opposite is true.  In fact, we just don't care whether there exists a moral dimension beyond beauty.  As Keats said, for us, "beauty is truth, truth beauty."

I suppose that this is the delusion that Tolstoy was speaking of: yes, we dimly sense that there might be something else, just as Lyla (my niece) dimly senses that her mashed carrots, though not pretty, might still be somehow good.  But how are we to know that good--if it gives us no pleasure--and satisfies no appetite either physical or intellectual? The quest is frustrating and, well, exhausting.  Ergo, most of us (I'm "pretty" sure) will simply read our People Magazines or collect our Grecian Urns, not worrying about what pretty does, but contenting ourselves with what pretty looks like.

So perhaps Keats was right again:  "That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know."

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Starbucks Reality

In a coffeehouse

I cyber



excitement near

almost here



then not

(triple shot)

nearly real

feeling so





Thursday, April 5, 2012

A New Commandment

It's Maundy Thursday, 2012.  Odd that, until today, I had never really wondered about the origin of that strange name.

Most of the online sources I consulted agree that the term "Maundy" derives from the Latin mandatum via the Old French mandé (commandment) and refers to the "new"commandment ("Love one another, as I have loved you") which Jesus pronounced just after washing his disciples' feet on the evening before his death (interestingly, the only gospel to mention the foot-washing, John, almost completely neglects the iconic Last Supper).

Over my many flip-flopping years, I have attended sundry Maundy Thursday services--in my various religious avatars: Presbyterian, Catholic, Episcopalian.  And I was invariably deeply moved--whatever catechism I had most recently espoused--especially by the ceremonial foot-washing and the solemn stripping of the altar, in preparation for the bleak mourning of Good Friday. This is an intensely beautiful liturgy celebrating friendship, love, and self-sacrifice in the face of inevitable--and impending--death.

Sadly, I no longer participate, since I no longer find it possible to believe in the Christian "big picture"--those fundamentally cruel dogmas about an angry God demanding a blood atonement which he, himself (suddenly "loving") provides, but only for right believers.  On the other hand, humble, self-sacrificing love between humans, as a sustainer and comforter in the face of ineluctable, incomprehensible death--that I DO believe and embrace.

To put it another way, I feel that the Maundy Thursday ritual--taken alone and out of context--accords quite nicely with my current (rather melancholy) agnostic humanism.  Much more nicely than, say, the liturgies of Christmas or Good Friday or Easter--all of which emphasize Jesus' supposed divinity (a notion I cannot reconcile with what I actually know) rather than his humanity (a notion with which I can easily identify and sympathize).

Jesus was a good man.  And he died for no good reason.  People, powerful people, people in authority, were afraid of him, probably because he seemed to be able to influence UNpowerful people with ideas that were often unorthodox, inconsistent with received thinking.  He had the potential, at least, to be a trouble-maker, an agent provocateur.

But I doubt that such was his intent. I suspect, rather, that he simply got carried away--that one idea led to another and that, with the growing success of his preaching, he simply lost the freedom to control his destiny--he began to feel obliged to conform to the "self" that his vision--as interpreted by other people--dictated.  A carpenter from Nazareth brought to trial--for treason--before the Roman procurator?  It seems entirely preposterous.  Yet history is sprinkled, here and there, with similar tales--tales of free-thinkers and luminaries who, ultimately, became victims of the "legend" that they themselves had created:  Alexander, Caesar, Socrates, Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Martin Luther King, Gandhi.

So, on this Maundy Thursday, I mourn the loss of such a good man.  He faced death bravely, but with totally human awe and apprehension--while urging his friends to abjure hate and embrace love.  If his "new" commandment (mandatum) were the sole creed of Christianity, I could undoubtedly still call myself a Christian.  Hold that thought.  And as John Lennon sang, "Imagine..."

John 13:34.  A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Foolish Consistency and Inconsistency

I maintain that both consistency and inconsistency can be equally "foolish."

When Emerson observed that a "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," he meant only that the genuinely wise person will not cling obstinately to an opinion which reason and evidence have proven faulty or false--such consistency, such conformity to outworn doctrines, would indeed be "foolish."  But he was NOT advocating INconsistency--for its own sake--or capriciousness--for the sake of social expediency--as an intellectual ideal.  Change your mind when you are convinced, by facts and common sense, that your previous position was wrong--that is moral honesty.  But remain true to yourself, reliant on your SELF and on the truth as you experience it, at a given time and in a given situation.

Thus, we can easily distinguish between a "wise" consistency--faithfulness to an abiding SELF--to one's reason, one's values, one's very identity as a person and a "foolish" consistency--blind allegiance to a superficial self--"what one has always said, what one has always done".

In the current political arena, such a foolish consistency is best personified by Rick Santorum--who, in his reflexive conformity to hoary, inherited dogma (both political and religious)--almost exactly fits Emerson's profile of a "little mind."

But what about Mitt Romney, you ask?  Surely, no one can accuse him of consistency, foolish or otherwise!  True. Neither, however, can we conclude that Mr. Romney's inconsistency is of the type that Emerson would have admired.

Because I am quite sure that, in Emerson's view, inconsistency, too, is frequently foolish and small-minded.  After all, if one cannot maintain a "wise" consistency in trusting one's own nature, one's own reason, one's own deepest values, then the resulting inconsistency can only be seen as vicious rather than virtuous:  as a very "foolish INconsistency."  Accordingly, Mr. Romney, who seems to adjust his views on a daily basis--in order to conform--not with any profound sense of SELF--but only with prevailing or politically-useful opinion--amounts to little more than chaff in the wind, foolishly inconsistent and, therefore, without significant weight or worth.

To summarize:

Santorum is conformist and small-minded in his foolish consistency.  Romney is conformist and small-minded in his foolish inconsistency.

Obviously, then, despite their loudly-proclaimed differences, the two candidates find themselves united not only in their Republicanism, but in a common bond of foolishness--a trait which, as Socrates noted (and Emerson would agree) is--alas--the sister of wickedness.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Married Friends

Some of my best friends are married.

They must have their reasons.  Or perhaps, for some people, marriage isn't a matter of "choice."  Perhaps their marriage-orientation was simply inborn, a genetically-inherited trait which no amount of expensive rehab or deprogramming could cure.

So I try to be open-minded, tolerant, liberal, non-judgmental.

Still, in the privacy of my celibate state, I at times cannot help feeling, well, superior--more advanced, more evolved.  Because somehow--and actually without any great struggle--I have managed to keep myself free from the oppressive (and primitive, it seems to me) legal and ethical bonds that so enthrall my matrimonially inclined friends.

Consequently, I am under absolutely no obligation to love, honor, cherish, or remain sexually faithful to anyone.  I have neither sired a child nor committed myself to nurture, support or motivate any wee mini-me's.  My life is blissfully mine to plan and organize--free from any responsibility toward others and independent of any whiny or needy "dependents."

Surely this solitary, autonomous, self-sufficient state is the ideal toward which civilization has been striving for millennia:  complete freedom for the individual to pursue his/her own happiness along any path of his/her choosing.

Here's how I see it:  in our long struggle for freedom, human beings have fought against and eventually overcome many forms of psychological, emotional, and physical enslavement.  We have fought against slavery itself--and in most places, we have triumphed.  We have fought against poverty, hunger, disease--and in much of the world, we have prevailed.  We have fought against religious intolerance--and we have made at least "some" progress--in places like Denmark and Vermont, anyway.  Finally, in 21st Century America, we are fighting against the most insidiously oppressive of ancient institutions--marriage and family--the final frontier in our quest to evolve into a freer, happier species.

Surely I need not remind my readers of the immeasurable pain and suffering caused by marriage and family throughout the ages.  The evidence is there--on the pages of all the Great Books, especially the Bible. Gratefully, then, I mutter every night, as I climb into my unshared bed, "God, I'm lucky to be alone!" (Honest, that is what I mutter.)

Of course, I understand that, even today, our society remains committed (albeit reluctantly) to producing and rearing children.  I suppose, therefore, that a breeding program of some kind will continue to be a cultural necessity, at least until medical advances can guarantee eternal life to all individuals already in existence.

But why not replace the archaic and dysfunctional marriage/family with a more efficient  and more rational breeding/rearing system?  I'm not advocating Brave New World decanting, mind you, but it does seem to me that a truly "evolved" society should immediately remove all newborn children from parents (who from time immemorial have proven themselves utterly incompetent at raising children) and placed in the care of trained experts--to be brought up in schools or asylums, where they can be properly socialized and taught both good hygiene and proper spelling.

Indeed, as my own example as a trained "rearer" suggests, our society seems to be moving in this positive and progressive direction.

Nonetheless, loyalty to old ways dies hard.  Many people--indeed, almost half the adults of the United States--according to recent statistics--cling, at least intermittently and sometimes even hysterically, to some form of traditionally dysfunctional marriage (with or without children)

Well, that is regrettable.  But, as I said before, we must nonetheless endeavor to be tolerant of these seemingly backward individuals--for in fact, the marriage orientation may be innate, something my married friends could simply not exorcise, hard as they might strain.

In short, it behooves those of us who are more evolved and liberated to, as the saying goes, "hate the sin, but love the sinner."

I, for instance, play cards with married people; I go to restaurants with married people; I even send Christmas cards to married people.

And, when I was still working at Diamond Bar High School, I uncomplainingly taught the children of married people--treating them exactly as I treated the children of more enlightened people who were shacking up without shackles.  Furthermore, if some disgruntled student hazarded a derogatory remark about married people or family life, I was quick to silence the offending child.  I would point out that marriage and family, though rejected by an increasing majority of forward-looking Americans, were nonetheless cherished by a significant minority--including many gays and lesbians who were seeking new experiences in BDSM.  I accordingly demanded respect for differing viewpoints and lifestyles.

Then, just to make the lesson stick, I generally confessed that "some of my best friends" were married.

That always got 'em.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Dispassionate Conservatism

As dispassionately as possible, I would like to discuss conservatism.

Conservatism rules the airwaves.  Fox News, far from being "fair and balanced," feeds its viewers a steady stream of conservative viewpoints and spins; the rival candidates for the Republican presidential nomination exhaust themselves trying to out-conservative one another; right-wing politicians, legislators and bloggers fill both real and cyber space with conservative creeds and screeds.

What does it all mean?  What IS a conservative?  And why do so many Americans seem to believe that conservatives--unlike frequently-denounced liberals and even moderates--are somehow the "good guys"?  ARE they the good guys?

I grew up in a small midwestern town where the term "conservative" was usually applied to someone who dealt honestly with others, paid his bills, went to church and didn't entertain any newfangled ideas about how to run things.  "Liberals," on the other hand, were thought to be dreamers, risk-takers, gamblers and, perhaps, even atheists--bad guys, in short. Naturally, nearly everybody in Lewiston, Minnesota, regarded himself as a conservative--i.e., a solid, respectable, law-abiding citizen.

And a good guy.

John Kenneth Galbraith took note of the conservative's preoccupation with being "good"   He famously wrote that the "modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."  In other words, as Galbraith implies, the typical conservative has a nagging sense of guilt about his interactions with others.  He (the conservative) senses that his actions are not, in any absolute sense, particularly admirable--that they are, in fact, selfish and even blameworthy--intended to benefit himself and his family, quite often at the expense of  others.  Accordingly, in an effort to assuage his guilty conscience, the conservative engages in compensatory do-gooding and moral posturing, which cost him relatively little and which allow him to justify his (objectively unjustifiable) propensity to take advantage of the weakness of others.  This is often called "compassionate conservatism"--probably because "being nice" and "giving to charity" are involved.  However, since true compassion--"co-suffering"--denotes actual fellow -feeling and real self-sacrifice, neither of which conservatives are likely to embrace, the term "compassionate conservatism" strikes me as a good example of Orwellian doublethink.

Then, too, above and beyond his no-real-cost philanthropy, the conservative often seeks to perfume his smelly behavior with the incense of holiness.  As Salmon Rushdie observes, "the idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas -- uncertainty, progress, change -- into crimes."  In other words, a particularly guilt-ridden conservative will, with great self-righteousness, proclaim that God himself (in his holy Bible, Koran, Torah, Oracle of Delphi) has decreed that any deviation from the status quo, any reform in which the conservative can no longer dominate, any attempt to make wealth flow away from rather than toward the conservative worshiper, is quite simply evil.  

And thus arises a great and tragic irony: whole branches of our organized religions--religions founded by genuinely compassionate (and radical) people preaching self-sacrifice, co-suffering and change --have been hijacked and subverted by conservatives. Seeking to clothe their greed in vestments of sanctity and  ignoring Jesus' admonitions to share with the poor and tend to the sick, these "prosperity gospel" Christians find Galbraith's "moral justification for selfishness" in Rushdie's "idea of the sacred." 

Is this an over-generalization?  A too-sweeping explanation of the conservative psychology?  Perhaps.  I know, for instance, that not all conservatives are religious--though, in my personal experience, most are. Certainly there are some who feel, à la Ayn Rand, that selfishness is an objective and rational value, implicit in the very order of the universe and that, as such, it requires no apology and no moral justification.  Others, who may or may not be religious, fear that any change (apart from a personal salary increase) might diminish their rank in the social hierarchy.  Paradoxically, such conservatives generally occupy a very low rung on the socio-economic ladder.  Nonetheless, they resolutely oppose reforms, even those that might improve their own lot, because they fear that others--lower still on the ladder--might thereby leapfrog over them to a higher rung.  According to The Scientific American this "last place aversion" accounts for a lot of the conservatism-cum-racism found in poor, rural, economically-depressed areas.  Everyone wants to have someone to look down on.

So let me try to conclude in some way.  Lincoln, endeavoring to validate the radically transformative Emancipation Proclamation, wrote, "What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?"  Yes, for a variety of reasons--usually involving untrammeled selfishness and /or the fear of losing something--conservatism is indeed "adherence to the old and tried."  And furthermore, especially in its American avatar, this conservatism frequently avails itself of religion to justify its almost fanatical aversion to the "new and untried." 

How odd that Lincoln, the first Republican president, ''conserved'' the Union by defying the very principles of conservatism, by trying new things, by getting laws changed, by co-suffering.  Accordingly, he may have been the first--and, quite possibly, the last--"compassionate conservative."

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Persiennes (Version GOP)

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Ronald Reagan Ronald Reagan Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Marrying the Corporation Next Door

The Supreme Court has declared that corporations are essentially people (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission), with the same First Amendment rights as those of us who acquired our personhood by spending 9 months in a stuffy womb rather than by filing articles of incorporation in a state Office of Financial Institutions.

This means that corporations have the right to free speech and therefore the ancillary right to spend obscene amounts of corporate money on so-called super PACs--Political Action Committees--which, in turn, have the right to freely use these monies to support the campaigns (and thus buy the votes) of politicians running for office.

At the moment, this aspect of recently-revealed corporate personhood is provoking a great deal of fractious hullabaloo--since clearly the extravagant donations of "people" such as Exxon Mobil or Wellpoint or Wal-Mart can (and likely will) profoundly shape the political landscape--consolidating and perpetuating the dominion of the plutarchs (individual or corporate) in 21st Century America.  Farewell representative democracy.

Well, so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut was wont to say whenever something or someone died.

But I, gold digger that I am, find myself vastly more interested in a second possible advantage of corporate personhood:  now that corporations are people, why couldn't I render my future more secure by marrying a corporation--preferably one of the Fortune 500?

You will object, of course, that in most states at least, marriage has been defined as between one man and one woman.  But since corporations are now people, and since people are necessarily either men or women (well, mas o menos), it seems perfectly logical to assume that at least SOME corporations would be suitably equipped to make me a happy family man.

It is a bit of a conundrum, though, this business of determining the gender of a specific corporation.  How is that to be done?  Can one turn a corporation upside down and examine its private parts?  Probably not.

My hunch is that registrars at marriage bureaus, when confronted with corporation/people seeking marriage licenses, will simply have to make an educated, sight-based, judgment.  And if it appears to the registrar--in his or her best estimation--that two persons of opposite gender are applying, the requisite document will have to be delivered.

Of course, in a handful of states, marriage equality laws have rendered the actual gender of applicants irrelevant--males can marry females OR males; females can marry males OR females.  One of these progressive person-friendly states would certainly be the ideal locale for my prospective marriage.  (Anything-goes-Iowa--woo-hoo--is just 60 miles away, so no sweat!)

Whew.  Well, that takes care of the gender issue.  But now the truly BIG problem presents itself:  which corporation should I set my cap for?  Wal-Mart?  GM?  Exxon?  Best Buy? Zappos?

Like everyone, I suppose, I am initially attracted to Apple.  What a person that Apple is!  Cool, sexy, articulate, witty, sophisticated.  Apple has everything and I love him/her deliriously.

Upon reflection, though, I know that my Apple-passion can never be consummated.  Unquestionably, super-cool Apple would simply overwhelm and exhaust me. I know that I could never keep up with his/her witty banter--and I could never master all the cutting edge sex moves, either.  In short, marriage to Apple would inevitably wind up making me feel inadequate and inferior. So no, alas, not Apple.

And not Wal-Mart, for heaven's sake:  he/she would make me feel cheap and vulgar.  Imagine what that sex would be like!

Exxon?  Too unctuous.  Boeing?  Too flighty.  GM? Too high-maintenance.

So, after long consideration, I think I would do best to stick to the boy/girl next door--someone familiar but occasionally inventive, an ordinary person but with a slight flair for the unconventional, a solid citizen who will happily support me in the manner to which I intend to become accustomed and who will always perform nicely in bed without demanding anything too kinky. Who is he/she, you ask.  Now don't laugh or criticize. For my corporate help-mate, I've chosen (trumpet flourish) another nice Minnesotan:  3M.

OK.  I know that 3M is no Apple. Sandpaper and glue and painting accessories have little glamour.  But Post-Its are pretty cool--and so is Scotch Tape--practical, too.  Best of all, though, is the near certainty that I'll have very little competition for stolid 3M's affections.  In fact, if I get cracking, I should be able to wrap up the entire seduction process before Valentine's Day.

One possible hitch:  3M resides in a suburb of Minneapolis, so that means we'll have to present our application to a marriage registrar  in Hennepin County, ordinarily a pretty tolerant place.  Still, if the official is having a bad day and determines that 3M and I are of the "same sex," I'll just have to persuade my sweetheart to take a short trip to Mason City or Des Moines--where no one will give a damn.

Cross your fingers. I'll keep you posted.  (Post-Its, remember.)