Tuesday, December 10, 2013


At the end of the day
Man up and
Double down
Take no prisoners
In tighty whities or
Cat's pajamas
Touch base
With user friendly
Freeway close
Deal breakers and man caves
The bully pulpit
With ballpark figures
On affordable care
Family values
Play phone tag
In hazmat suits
Re.  personhood
Bedhead hair
And en suite
Macular degeneration
Immaculate Conception
Pop goes the weasel

The Icky Christian Agenda

The "homosexual" agenda gets a lot of attention on Fox News which has apparently concluded, along with Pat Robertson, One Million Moms, the American Family Association and other such self-appointed "guardians" of American morality that gays have a not-so-secret "game plan" for undermining and destroying the fabric of our national (and, of course, "Christian") society.  Pat Robertson even suggested that Christians need a "vomit button" to hit when the gays just seem too  "perverted" or "icky."

Actually, though, isn't it the other way around?  Isn't it the Christians who are the perverts? Isn't it the fundamentalist Christians who are endeavoring to subvert the Republic?

It would certainly seem so to me.  Because, truly, any moderately intelligent student of history knows that it's utter rubbish to assert, as these delusional gasbags do, that "America was founded as a Christian nation" and that the framers of our Constitution intended to create yet another theist state with an established and mandatorily-embraced mythology as its default ideology.

Jefferson said, "Religions are all alike -- founded on fables and mythologies."

Madison wrote, "What has been the fruits of Christianity? ...Superstition, bigotry and persecution."

Well, I agree with both statements. And I therefore announce (this isn't much of a surprise, I suppose) that I stand, with Jefferson and Madison, in opposition to the following noxious tenets of the Christian (not homosexual) Agenda that, in my opinion, poses a continuing menace to the survival of our secular Republic--the noble institution that Franklin said the Founders had given us "if we can keep it.":

1.  Christian teachers who recruit, attempting to turn innocent children into intolerant, other-hating, Christians like themselves;
2.  Advocating prayer in schools, a clear attempt at brainwashing kids into believing that docile wishing for something is an effective alternative to taking action to achieve that thing;
3.  Tax exemptions for churches; why should such anti-democratic and fundamentally seditious, institutions receive fiduciary privileges?
4.  Public displays of spirituality; more propaganda and attempts to influence impressionable minds (religion is a private matter);
5.  So-called "family values"; sentimental and distorted view of human realities; a perversion, really, not to mention a misrepresentation of the historical Jesus--who abandoned his family, never married, never had kids and never held a job;
6.  Missionary sexual mores; boring, conformist, unoriginal approach to something that should be not just procreative but recreative--and joyfully creative whether or not babies result;
7.  Putting Christ in Christmas; brainwashing, using emotion and sentiment to promote a nefarious agenda and foster belief in at least one clearcut lie--that Jesus' birth coincided with pre-existing Winter Solstice celebrations--as well as in a probable second lie--that said Jesus was "god" incarnate;
8.  Christian lifestyle, churchgoing, praying, Jesus movies, icky stuff like that; cringeworthy foolishness in such bad taste and of such dubious social usefulness that it should not be given public approbation;  indecent, patently offensive behavior.
9.  Church bells on Sunday morning; why make the whole world wake up, just because you feel guilty and want to celebrate your guilt; a public nuisance;
10.  Prayer before city council meetings; no superstitious, hypocritical religious nonsense in any public forum; clearly unconstitutional!
11.  In-your-face religious garb:  priests and nuns and Jesus t-shirts with offensive pictures or slogans; now I realize that "believers" have a first-amendment right to express themselves.  But is it really necessary to deliberately provoke your law-abiding atheist neighbors with this dominionist garbage?  Please wear this obscene stuff only when participating in your cult rituals.
12.  "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance; how dare you try to force good Americans to pledge allegiance to some silly, mean-spirited "sky daddy"!
13.  "In God We Trust" on our money; why not trust people; GOD ain't gonna pay the interest.
14.  Insane attempts to legislate fertilized eggs (embryos) into "personhood"; your personal fantasies do not constitute demonstrable fact.

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.  This subversive "agenda" goes on and on--and its advocates are everywhere--on Fox News, in Congress, in the malls, and behind the wheels of those trucks with little "fishy" bumper stickers! But this is NOT what our Enlightenment Founders intended. No way! Yes, I suppose that silly, credulous people have the right to worship tinpot gods if they want, but they they have NO RIGHT to expect good Enlightenment Americans to grant special privileges to them or their bilge.  To use one of their favorite expressions (when they are denouncing homosexuals), they have NO RIGHT to ram this nonsense down our throats.  They are not entitled to any special public status by virtue of their private beliefs and practices.  So Christians: go to church if you want; pray to Jesus if you want; say "Merry Christmas" if you want (and if you don't mind offending others); fast on Good Friday if you want; mumble "God Bless You" when someone sneezes if you want.  But leave the rest of us alone and don't try to make America LOOK LIKE YOU.  Because, frankly, most of you (I make exception for a few milquetoast Episcopalians and Congregationalists) are pretty ugly, Christians. You're awfully, awfully, well...the first word that comes to my mind is "icky."  Yes, that's right:  you are icky people. Just as Jefferson and Madison knew.  Ewwww  (*pushes Robertson's vomit button*).

P.S.:  OK, I acknowledge that in writing this post, I chose to be deliberately "over-the-top" in co-opting the anti-gay language so frequently employed by asshole televangelists and extreme fundamentalist politicians.  I am fully aware that many sensible and sensitive Christians do not share the views that I have denounced.  Still, I think it is a good exercise for Christians of all stripes to begin to think differently--to stop assuming that THEY are the "norm" and that OTHERS are the "outliers" or "threats."  Maybe, just maybe, it's the CHRISTIAN lifestyle (not the homosexual lifestyle, not the humanist lifestyle, not the Muslim or the Jewish or the Spaghetti-Monster lifestyle) that is keeping our society from realizing its full potential as a more compassionate and more perfect Union.

And even if this is not so, even if Christians are just an innocuous group of folks with over-active imaginations and nasty (but "harmless") vocabulary, isn't it about time that they actually FEEL what it's like to be treated by their fellow citizens as dangerous and debauched scum?  I offer no apologies for this "turnabout" lesson.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

God's Doughnut Holes

Today I experienced "Contemporary Worship" in a mainline Protestant church:  coffee, orange juice and doughnut holes as you enter the sanctuary (you may take doughnut holes in napkins and drinks in styrofoam to your seat if you'd like, but there are no decent cup holders in the pews--only those little shot-glass sized receptacles for sullied communion glasses); hippie-ish female pastor in jeans with a kind of Amish-quilt shawl/stole and a headset microphone; several jeans-clad female song leaders with tambourines and other noisemakers; sappy lyrics to songs projected on huge over-chancel screen; music piped into and projected out of great rock-concert amplifiers positioned on either side of the Holy Table.

The actual "service" was a kind of rambling mishmash involving the announcement of upcoming fundraisers, the sharing of "joys and concerns," the signing of "fellowship sheets," the telling of a saccharine "children's sermon" (ostensibly to two children) but clearly intended to induce childlike happy feelings in adults, the preaching of an "adult message" also clearly intended to induce childlike happy feelings in adults, the delivery of a sprawling, improvised pastoral prayer and, to punctuate it all, the almost unendurable congregational mewling of the lyrics to a half-dozen vapid "praise songs" (in which "home," "throne," and "come" supposedly rhyme and whose canned synthesizer music is accompanied by "live" tambourines and jingle bells wielded by the song leaders).

It was almost too self-consciously folksy and mindless
to bear, but since my sister and I were visiting our beloved 87-year old aunt--a devout churchgoer--it would have been singularly churlish to refuse her invitation (expectation, really) to accompany her to this "contemporary worship" experience at Zion United Church of Christ, Waukon, Iowa.  Besides, the coffee was pretty good, actually--as were the doughnut holes.

Today's sermon (for adults) was based on the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge (Luke 18, 1-8). It's a parable I didn't remember--about a persistent widow who unrelentingly demands justice from a judge who respects neither God nor public opinion.  Ultimately, she simply wears the judge out and he grants her justice--not because he sees the rightness of her case or because he gives a damn about her personally, but because he's just plain sick of her wheedling.

The moral of the story supposedly concerns the power of prayer and the necessity of "not giving up."  God, apparently, will eventually get so weary of our demands for justice that he will, at last, accede to them.  Well, I suppose that's at least partially good news:  so there is a way for really determined people to make God be fair.  Prayer says Luke/Jesus, if it is "faithful and unceasing," will, eventually, get us some kind of humane treatment.

But the assumptions underlying this parable are decidedly unpleasant:  God is here likened to the unjust judge--an all-powerful entity who has no particular attachment to what we humans consider "justice."  He is, moreover, an all-powerful entity who is capricious, arbitrary and subject to the strategies of lobbying and pressure-politics.  Justice, it would seem, therefore, is an entirely human, not a divine, concept--and the only way justice can be obtained, if at all, is by "manipulating" God--by never letting him off the hook, or--so to speak--by eating all his doughnut holes.

Unsurprisingly, the pastor delivering today's sermon chose not to dwell on God's injustice--or on the absurdity and the cruelty of the universe.  Rather, she focused on the widow--and on the widow's psychology.  The woman's refusal to accept injustice, her commitment to making persistent demands even in the face of seemingly endless indifference--these traits, the pastor insisted, were what gave meaning to the widow's life and allowed her, in a sense, to define herself vis a vis God and even, again in a sense, to prevail against the arbitrariness and insensitivity of the universe:  she became greater (to paraphrase Pascal) than that which destroyed her.  It seems to me, then, that in this parable, prayer rather resembles "revolt" in Camus's philosophy or "engagement" in Sartre's--a way of leading a fully authentic and worthwhile life in the face of an absurd world.

So--I now continue where the pastor did not venture--I guess we should go ahead and pray (or rather, keep on demanding justice; never, never giving up; bombarding the SOB in charge with our complaints). Though God (or the unthinking universe) will undoubtedly remain as inhuman and uncomprehending as ever (N.B.: Jesus does not say that the judge's "nature" changes), yet nevertheless, YOU, like the widow, will be changed; YOU will begin to feel that your life has acquired shape and sense; and thus YOU will find that your demand for justice has, indeed, somehow been met--even in God's eternally unjust courtroom.

And YOU did it:  YOU ate up all God's doughnut holes and you went home feeling vindicated!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Holy Shit!

Hagiography, of course, is not about hags.  Mostly, as it turns out, it's about virgins, torture, and titillation.

For example, in about 1368, St. Catherine of Siena (later a Doctor of the Church) had a vision in which Jesus proposed spiritual marriage to her and offered her his dried-up foreskin as a wedding ring.  She put it on, but it was apparently visible only to her, since the "real" prepuce was displayed, until 1983 (when it quite mysteriously disappeared) in the Church of the Holy Prepuce in Calcata, Italy.  Not to worry, though.  At least 18 other equally authentic Holy Foreskins have been venerated in diverse churches throughout Europe. It has also been proposed (by the "scholar" Leo Allatius) that at some point the One True Holy Foreskin ascended into heaven and became the weirdest of the rings of Saturn.

For somewhat more gruesome titillation, we have St. Lawrence, who was grilled alive on a specially-designed gridiron.  No one knows whether barbecue sauce was applied, but the saint supposedly chastised his grillers for their careless technique. "I am well done; turn me over."  Lawrence's prototypical Weber Grill is piously preserved and venerated in Rome's church of San Lorenzo in Lucina.  More famously, though, the St. Lawrence Gridiron is a barbecue restaurant in Boise, Idaho--they have a food truck.  With black-humored (charred?) logic, St. Lawrence has become the patron saint of cooks.

Back to virgins. St. Cecilia was an Roman noblewoman who "sang a song to the Lord" in her heart while she was being married to Valerian, with whom she later refused to have sex since, in her conversion to Christianity, she had consecrated her maidenhood to Jesus (he must have quite a collection). Thereafter, somehow, (because she preferred singing to sex?) she became the patron saint of musicians--especially, er, organists, I imagine.

St. Margaret (of Antioch) and St. Catherine (of Alexandria) were both virgins who like Cecilia consecrated themselves to a mystical union with Christ and were therefore martyred by villainous and pagan anti-feminists. Though Catherine was condemned to die on a spiked wheel, she managed by philosophical right- thinking to make the nasty instrument disappear into thin air.  Alas, her mental energies could no longer prevail when her captors ingeniously severed her head from her body, thereby endearing her to frustrated philosophers everywhere, for whom she has become the patron saint.  As for Margaret, well, she was swallowed by Satan disguised as a dragon, but since the cross she carried irritated his belly, he found it necessary to expel her via some orifice "down there" (like childbirth).  So naturally she, too, was beheaded and became, in memory of her delivery from Satan, the patron of childbirth.

Even the Catholic Church itself admits that there is little evidence that either St. Margaret or St. Catherine ever existed, so it is a bit of a surprise, I suppose, that these were the two saints (along with St. Michael, an archangel and thus, by definition, non-existent) who were supposedly appointed by God to speak with authority to Joan of Arc regarding her perhaps ill-advised mission to save France from England (just think:  if she had let the English win, French would have become England's language and America would be speaking French today. Zut alors.).

Joan of Arc, by the way, did indeed exist--and like most holy females--acquired sainthood by virtue of being a virgin--with a twist, though--since rather unusually, she was a virgin who put on men's clothing and then assumed the macho profession of soldier.

St. Sebastian, on the other hand, was a macho soldier who acquired sainthood by taking OFF men's clothing and posing for queasily BDSM-type portraits as a sexy male virgin.  The favorite subject of medieval and renaissance artists with homoerotic penchants, Sebastian is nearly always portrayed as an achingly beautiful naked youth bound to a tree and mortally penetrated by countless phallic arrows. Don't ask and don't tell, but seductive Sebastian has become the patron saint of both athletes and macho military men. In the 20th Century, he could have made it big as one of the Village People.

Then, hee hee, there was St. Hilarius (I'm not making this up) who was a pope sometime or other and didn't do much of anything.  As far as I can determine, he is not the patron saint of anything either. Very papal, but not as titillating as the name leads one to expect.

So let's check out another virgin of dubious authenticity--St. Barbara--who, much like her namesake city in California, seems rather more fairy-tale fantastical than real.  Legend has it, nonetheless, that Barbara was (what else?) a pious virgin, dedicated to remaining hermetically sealed and to spending a good deal of her life locked up in a tower.  In the end, though, she went the way of most pious virgins, getting her head chopped off--and by her own father, no less.  Though God inexplicably failed to save Barbara, He did manage to punish the wicked parent by striking him dead with a bolt of lightening.  Hence, by association, Barbara (not the father) has become the patron saint of artillerymen, firearms and fireworks.  NRA please take note of Barbara's feast day, which is still observed by Orthodox and Anglican Christians: December 4.  If you can't light a candle, light a couple firecrackers.

And now, the Big One. (You knew this was coming, didn't you?) By far the most popular saint, of course, is yet another virgin--the Virgin Mary--better known, perhaps, as Our Lady (of Something or Other). The "something or other" is sometimes a place where she supposedly appeared to someone (e.g., Lourdes) and sometimes a character trait (e.g., "Sorrows," "Perpetual Help") she supposedly possesses.

Our Lady of Lourdes, for instance, appeared to simple-minded Bernadette (a.k.a. Jennifer Jones) in a grotto in the Pyrenees announcing that she--the Lady--was also the "Immaculate Conception."  Obviously too dim to process this mind-boggler, Bernadette promptly set about scratching a hole in the ground from which, mirabile visu, a spring sprang forth, whose waters can now be purchased by modern-day pilgrims in Virgin-shaped plastic bottles with heads that screw off when one wants to take a sip.

Our Lady of Fatima, for her part, appeared to a passel of little Portuguese kids and scared the shit out of them by making the sun whirl and dance and bounce around.  She also told them three big secrets which they, in turn, related to priests and popes etc. (via a game of ecclesiastical Chinese Whispers) and which predicted things which may or may not have come true, especially the third, which might still be "sealed" and is probably about the end of the world. Look for further information in the next book by Dan Brown.

(I note, in passing, that the Reverend Pat Robertson also receives regular secrets from divine sources--though as a Protestant, he probably gets his info directly from Yahweh, not from any intermediary Virgin).

My favorite Lady is Our Lady of Guadalupe--I even have a pretty icon of her on my living room wall (it goes nicely with my décor). Not that I find this apparition more credible than any of the others, mind you, but I have a strong sentimental attachment to this brown-skinned Lady who, way back in 1531, supposedly spoke to the perhaps fictitious Juan Diego in Nahuatl (not an easy language for a Lady) and delivered to him (on his cloak!) a brightly-colored image of herself that differs considerably from the traditional portraits of vacuous, blue-garbed Ladies of Spain and Portugal and France.  I think of it, in fact, as a vivid but unpretentious 16th Century "selfie."

BTW, almost all biblical scholars (except those who completely despair of ever knowing anything whatsoever about Jesus of Nazareth)--all these scholars acknowledge that Mary, far from being a perpetual virgin of the Catherine, Margaret and Barbara sort, was in fact the mother of several children other than Jesus--most notably "James the Brother of the Lord" who is mentioned prominently in Acts and the Pauline epistles (Galatians) and was the leader of the initial Church in Jerusalem.

Holy Shit, eh?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Constitutional Pot-Sitting

The most basic human needs do not change.  Since the beginning, we have found it necessary to defecate--and we have frequently, therefore, assigned the name "necessaries" to the various devices we have invented to "facilitate"--with a modicum of efficiency and modesty--the accomplishment of this task (hence another euphemism--"facilities").

However, as this picture of an 18th century night stool illustrates, the devices we employ change and evolve over time (in response to social and scientific advances), even though the fundamental need remains constant. Hence, I doubt that anyone, in 21st century America, would consider this chaise percée--despite its mahogany elegance--to be a particularly efficient or desirable substitute for a nice Kohler flush toilet.  But by the same token, few would choose to forego entirely the aid of a "necessary" in accomplishing this most fundamental act of human liberation.

What always strikes me as odd, though, is how many modern folks--who in their choice of plumbing cherish their sanitary, lavender-scented bathrooms--remain inexplicably and adamantly attached to political ideas and systems that are the smelly equivalent of 18th century night stools. For shitting, they want a sleek 21st century crapper. For governing, they cling to a messy 18th century constitution.

Oh, I am not being unpatriotic or seditious here.  Our Dear Old Constitution (DOC), like the night stool pictured, was undoubtedly state-of-the-art--in 1789.  Back then, as today, people had to "do their business," and the night stool/constitution conceived by Madison et. al. was at the time perhaps the most efficient and elegant invention yet devised to help do the job. For its yeoman service over many years, it has earned our respect and veneration.

But the world has changed since 1789.  Yes, people still have to defecate, of course.  However, circumstances surrounding this act no longer resemble the 18th century context for which the night stool was designed.  These days, overflowing chamber pots cannot simply be dumped in streets. And anyway there are no servants to dump them.  Septic night soil cannot be collected and used to fertilize vegetable gardens.  And besides there are no vegetable gardens to fertilize.  In short, a night stool--in the 21st century--would simply not receive a very high rating from Consumer Reports (even though its woodwork might be stunning).  

Were there a Consumer Reports for governmental charters, I fear that a similar bad review would be accorded to the Constitution that we so reflexively and unquestioningly revere.  Because isn’t it evident that, despite its elegant concern for symmetry and "balance," this beloved but outmoded contraption is just no longer doing a very good job of handling our daily "business"?  Nice woodwork, but--as Washington paralysis demonstrates every day—distressingly smelly and inefficient within our modern context.  

And alas, though the Founders themselves realized that their political “convenience” might someday need to be amended and updated, our constitutional remodeling has so far amounted to little more than slapdash tinkering—so ramshackle that we’re actually beginning to lack the political plumbing to keep ourselves free of our own accumulating waste. 

I wonder, therefore: isn’t it about time to convene another Constitutional Convention and charge it with engineering a system designed for 21st century realities?  Or, lacking that, at least with legislating some substantial streamlining via, well, a "sh*tload" of amendments to our now decidedly incommodious DOC ? Clearly, we very desperately need some updated constitutional facilities. 

I do wish (though, in truth, I entertain little real hope) that our leaders would just get off the pot and do it!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

American Exceptionalism: Bullshit Of, By and For the Assholes

In his little essay entitled "On Bullshit," philosopher Harry Frankfurt makes this basic distinction between liars and bullshitters: liars know the truth but deliberately attempt to deceive in order to advance some particular interest (ranging from selfish to idealistic); bullshitters, on the other hand don't know and/or don't care about the truth, but are merely making stuff up in order to achieve some immediately satisfying result (which may be entirely frivolous but which may also be incredibly dangerous).  In other words, liars at least have an authentic relationship with the truth--since they actively defy it.  Bullshitters on the other hand are complete phonies:  what they say may (in fact) be either true or false (who cares?)--but any connection with the fact/truth is purely and irrelevantly coincidental. It's the story--and the impression it makes--that counts.

In another book I'm currently reading--Assholes: A Theory--philosopher Aaron James reflects upon a somewhat related phenomenon:  assholery.  An asshole, according to James, is essentially someone possessed of an entrenched sense of entitlement whereby he systematically accords himself special advantages, denying the moral equality of other human beings.

As James points out, this attitude of superior self-worth sometimes accompanies genuine talent and genius (Picasso, Hemingway)--and sometimes accompanies nothing but fatuous mediocrity (Donald Trump, Dick Cheney).  In any event, though, a certain kind of "bullshit" reasoning is required to sustain the assholery:  i.e., the actual truth--that human beings, regardless of inequalities in talent and intelligence, nonetheless have equal legitimacy and worth as human beings--is set aside in favor of a made-up bullshit notion (perhaps not even verbalized) that some "animals" are more equal than others. Assholes are the guys who automatically cut to the head of the line because, well, in their bullshit world, there is a special constitutional amendment--made up by them--just for them permitting them to take precedence. Bullshit of the asshole, by the asshole, for the asshole.

What saddens me, depresses me, angers me above all, is that this bullshit/asshole mentality so thoroughly permeates American politics, American politicians, American foreign policy and, alas, American citizenry in general--especially those uber patriots who babble endlessly about American "exceptionalism."

Listen!  Why does America have to be the guy who invariably cuts in line?  the guy who weaves through three lanes of traffic?  the loudmouth whose opinion cannot be questioned?

So, like Martin Luther (though he, too, was kind of an asshole, wasn't he?), I have to take a stand on this--just as I feel impelled to shout out when someone cuts me off in traffic:  American exceptionalism is an absolute bullshit notion--and those who espouse it are consummate assholes!  Here I stand. I can do no other. Assholes!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Thou Shalt Not Kill--by Lethal Gas.

I wrote an earlier blog post (http://oldagesticks.blogspot.com/2013/06/crimes-against-humanity-lions-and.html) in which I accused Western countries, and especially the United States (sanctimonious self-appointed policeman of the world), of being hypocritically less concerned about the "kind" of crime committed by Syria (i.e., killing of civilians) than about the "degree" or "intensity" of the crime (i.e., egregious and systematic killing, rather than the more discreet, gentlemanly killing practiced by the world's "good guys.")

President Obama's recent remarks, however, have made it clear that the focus of my criticism was actually wrong. I was discussing the wrong kind of kind, i.e., the killing.  Silly me. Apparently, neither the U.S. nor any other nation state has any but the most generically pious objection to the "degree" of killing going on in Syria--or indeed, to intramural killing itself (as a "kind" of criminal act).

No, what the debate and the moral outrage is actually about is, well, the WEAPON supposedly used to accomplish the killing--in this instance, lethal gas.  So yes, in a sense, we are discussing "kind" rather than "degree."  But it isn't the kind of outcome that is condemned (except in platitudinous lamentations).  Rather, it is the kind of means by which the civilian massacres were achieved.  The United States, it turns out, can quite easily tolerate killing--a kind of result--but it cannot allow killing by gas--a kind of means to that result--to go unpunished.

So, killing--in some considerable degree--well, that must be accepted, as it always has been in omnia saecula saeculorum. But chemical weapons--this unholy kind of killing instrument is villainous, reprehensible, unacceptable and, yes, self-evidently immoral.  Thou shalt not kill by lethal gas, for the United States will not hold him guiltless, that killeth by lethal gas.

Napalm, I patriotically hasten to point out, is merely a chemical "agent," not a gas.  And Agent Orange is a "defoliant."

Now, Syria, the reasoning goes, has broken the Lethal Gas Commandment (set forth in the 1927-29 Geneva Protocol which Syria ratified in 1968, though it never signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and therefore is technically not bound by it). In any event, morality is morality.  A Commandment is a Commandment.  God clearly does not want mankind to kill in this horrible way (and here I acknowledge--without sarcasm--that it truly is horrible).  Other ways (knives, guns, missiles, cluster bombs) are, however, morally acceptable and, indeed, according to the NRA, some of these should probably be deployed to protect children in public schools in the United States).  Then, too, buried somewhere within the legalistic Leviticus of U.N. documents, there is probably a document laying out the rules for "kosher" slaughter of human beings (the Protocol itself?).

And so, the United States, as the divinely (i.e. self-) appointed enforcer of kosher/halal killing, is now mustering its missile-girded hosts along the coastline of sinning Syria (the Philistines are gonna get it again).  But, says Obama, we have no intention of intervening to stop the killing itself.  We are merely going to punish the perpetrators for the kind of instrument used in the killing--the weapon that makes the killing treif.  This is called, with medical detachment, a "surgical strike."  I think, though, that religious terminology might be more appropriate.  Because isn't the military operation we are contemplating an attempt to "purge" a country of both unclean, heretical practices and those who impiously engage in them? Aren't we really just insisting that the killing be done with proper utensils?  So perhaps we could name the operation "Hallaf" in honor of the knife that is prescribed for ritual and thus "legitimate" slaughter.  Or, if we wanted to stress the more Christian notion of purging the world of heretical practices, we could also call the strike "Operation Auto-da-Fé."

Monday, August 26, 2013

Sentience and Guilt

N.B.  This is a somewhat updated (and less politically dogmatic) version of an earlier post entitled "Riddled by Guilt."  I hope that the conclusion to the present post is fairer and more cogent than the final ramblings of the earlier essay.

It's pretty much a commonplace to observe that the source of human psychological anguish is the guilt we feel for having somehow acquired sentience--the knowledge that we are "something" but not "everything"--that we possess some godlike powers of knowledge and yet (through our "most grievous fault"--presumably) must nonetheless endure very un-godlike death.

This reality finds its religious explanation in the myth of The Fall of Man, of which I here summarize the Catholic version.  Satan (whoever he is/was) goaded human beings into eating the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, by which act we arrogated unto ourselves a self-awareness that only God "deserves" to possess, because only God is truly superior to, and not bound by, the physical laws of the universe.  The fact that we must die is definitive proof that--despite our presumption--we are not gods, we are not free, we are not perfect, we are, in short, evil, and selfish and sinful.  Original Sin, then, is really nothing more than the guilt we feel about being separate from the universe, about "knowing" and nonetheless "deserving" to die.

The irony, of course, is that we cannot bring ourselves to want to not know, to want to reunite ourselves with unthinking, brute matter.  Far from yearning to return to a state of robotic beatitude, incapable of choice, incapable of knowing good from evil, we instead cling stubbornly, as to the most precious of gifts, our ability to know, and hence to do, evil.  We call this "la condition humaine" or "the quality which makes us human." We don't like knowing that we're "bad," but we sure prefer the guilt feelings to knowing nothing at all.

Several responses to human guilt are possible--and here's where I'm going to play around with American political attitudes:  A) the Religious (Save Me) response; B) the Humanist (Save You) response; C) the Libertarian (Fuck You) response;  D) the Helpless Victim (Fuck Me) response. And, of course, there may be others.

The most popular response is A, the Save Me Religious response (espoused most especially by Republicans, but by a good many Democrats as well).  The person holding this belief is, essentially, childlike and undemanding in his thinking.  He acknowledges that he does evil, even that he knowingly and sometimes enthusiastically does so, taking pleasure in exploiting and dominating and controlling (as if he were God) while simultaneously regretting (like a small child) the empirical evidence that his actions are not automatically "good" and that he, too, in the end, deserves punishment and must "pay."

This fearful Type-A person therefore behaves as children often do, inventing for himself an imaginary, parental, yet all-powerful friend (a god) who will rescue him from his guilt--a savior who will swoop down and make a deal with the erring child, a deal that costs the child very little and that will make it possible for the poor baby to escape the punishment (death) he richly deserves.  Jesus (but also Allah and Yahweh and Quetzalcoatl) will "forgive" and/or "redeem" our friend for his sin (i.e., that behavior which he most cherishes) of behaving like the god he isn't. Convoluted, but logical--to a child.

The second most popular response is probably the Humanist Save-You response (advocated by many Democrats and a few Republicans). These Type-B individuals (of whom I am one) are relatively adult and responsible in their thinking.  Like the Type-A folks, they, too, recognize their yearning for personal knowledge and dominion, their love for experiencing the exhilaration and exaltation of godlike power.  And like the Type-As, the Type-Bs feel guilty about their selfishness--they are quite aware that much of their behavior is not "good" and, indeed, deserving of punishment.  Type-Bs, though, do not usually take refuge from their responsibility by believing that faith in divine saviors and/or superhuman redeemers justifies their sinfulness (though many remain un-dogmatical or tepid churchgoers). Rather, they rely upon their own human faculties to make compensation for their failures and excesses; they choose to "pay for" their sins, to balance their selfishness, by doing good--by being liberal.  Thus, by changing and/or moderating their own behaviors, by committing themselves to solidarity with others, they themselves expiate for their sin.

(I note, in passing, that St. Paul was a Type-A--inventing a redeeming Christ to save sinful man--the original "justification by faith" guy); the historical Jesus, however, insofar as our very spotty evidence reveals him--was probably a Type-B, advocating responsibility and proper conduct--a "justification by works" guy.)

The third and fourth types of responses can probably be considered together, since they both involve a categorical "refusal" to acknowledge personal guilt and/or responsibility--and as such, they are essentially delusional.  These guys--at both ends of the political spectrum--are deniers of human reality and, as such, essentially dishonest, foolish, and often dangerous people.  The parallels in the defective reasoning are apparent.

For instance, the Libertarian says, with Ayn Rand, "Fuck you:  I am God and I have no obligation to anyone but myself.  Whatever evil exists is your fault.  I will do what I please and, if you cannot care for yourself, then you deserve to die.  But I WILL NOT DIE (or if I do, I'll have the last laugh). Hahaha."

The Helpless Victim, on the other hand, asserts--along with countless pseudo-Marxist apologists--that his very haplessness renders him somehow intrinsically superior to his exploiters.  "Fuck me; you fuck me over, all the time. But you are evil.  All evil is your fault.  I am entitled to be loved and cared for because, as you will one day see, I am God. Then you will die.  But I WILL NOT DIE.  Hahaha.

It depresses me a bit that so many modern Americans remain strongly theistic--and thus tempted by Option A attitudes. Such puerile thinking merely encourages violence, strife, tribalism and wantonly irresponsible conduct--on the part of both individual citizens and the national government elected by them.  But I take some comfort in a truth that I have observed within my own family, to wit:

Aside from me and my two nephews, most members of my immediate family (siblings, aunts, cousins) are fairly regular churchgoers, i.e., they acknowledge a "savior" and pay lip service, at least, to the notion that "right belief" i.e., faith justifies them and frees them from their guilt. Nonetheless, these same people, in their political actions, in their daily lives, behave pretty much in accord with the progressive "savior-free" path of tolerance and good works as the remedy for primal guilt.

Does this indicate, then, that fellow feeling is mankind's "built in" remedy to original sin/guilt? Is Option B the human default option?  Such that, even those who, for whatever reason, "prefer" the savior/right belief solution, sense deep down, that justification by faith is a kind of bad faith, dishonesty, a cop out, an excuse to justify clinging stubbornly to the very selfishness that causes their guilt, but that they are too weak or too lazy to control by doing good?

I certainly hope so.  Because, quite frankly, I'm pretty fed up with Options A, C and D.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

French Toastiness

Dateline:  June 2, 2013, PARIS, 75011.  (Finished August 24, 2013.)

I've been in Paris for almost two weeks, now--in a pleasant and pricey little flat in the 11th arrondissement--playing at being a "real" Parisian, though of course, such authenticity is actually quite beyond my reach.

It has been incredibly rainy and cold for almost my entire stay--record-breaking low temperatures for the month of May.  Somewhat depressing and demoralizing, I suppose, and definitely "damp," but overall, I've thoroughly enjoyed myself.  My Paris friends have overwhelmed me with hospitality--always accompanied by food, drink and good conversation.  So I was initially a bit shocked, last night, to hear a dinner companion complain bitterly about the coldness of the French.  Max, the source of this criticism, is an Argentinian, perfectly fluent in French and English, living and working in Paris.  Though he is much more authentically Parisian than I, he wants nothing more than to get out, because, he says (and this to me--a Francophile--and to our fellow diner--an American who has taken French citizenship), the French are simply cold and mean-spirited, possessing absolutely no real sense of "fraternité," and so hostile to their fellow creatures that they alone among civilized peoples have found it necessary to legislate human kindness, via their "good Samaritan" law.

Max offered this opinion without bitterness, in a quite matter-of-fact way, as if his judgment were little more than a mere statement of self-evident fact.  En France, sauve qui peut!  And those who don't like that way of life should, well, get out.

I have, of course, heard similar criticisms from others--but almost always from Americans (not Argentinians) and, especially, from Americans who do not speak French, who have never tried to learn anything about French culture, who have never spent longer than a week in the Hexagone. That such parochial and navel-gazing Americans should find France "intimidating" and "unfriendly," is not really surprising.  But the reaction of Max, a pretty worldly guy, DID surprise me.  Mostly, though, it was Max's conflation of coldness with hostility that got me thinking.

So what about it?  Are the French significantly more frosty than other national groups? And if so, is this frostiness a sign of some sort of gratuitous and unjustified hostility to other humans?

Well, I admit that I once might have answered a qualified "yes" to both questions. My earliest trips to France--even the entire year I spent there as an assistant d'anglais--yielded very little true contact and no enduring friendships with Hexagonals.  I'm pretty timid, so much of the fault may have been my own.  Still, the cool, albeit usually polite, "signals" sent me by those with whom I interacted were of the "let's not get too close" variety.  And so, though I'm not sure I regarded this aloofness as "hostility,"  I confess that I did sometimes feel--as Max suggested--as if my French colleagues and fellow students had inexplicably encased themselves in a sheath of ice.

Ice glaze.

Now much later, after I have finally come to know and love a good many warm, caring and generous French people--people who have become deeply cherished friends, I return to that image--ice glaze--but I interpret the metaphor quite differently at present.  In 1966, I thought--like Max--that the ice glaze was, as Max would say, a facade--not necessarily hostile, but nonetheless rather puzzling--erected seemingly for the sole and irrational purpose of keeping outsiders definitively "out."  Now, in 2013, I perceive that, in many cases anyway, the ice glaze was (and is) something much more positive--something more about the individual Frenchman's confident sense of self and of self-reliance, and considerably less about the outsider's merits or lack thereof.

BTW, here's what the National Center for Home Food Preservation has to say about ice glazing: ice glazing is a unique protection net for frozen fish, seafood, and chicken. In essence, it's a thin layer of ice, which, with the use of modern technology, embraces the product permanently and firmly and thereby protects the foodstuff from contact with air and prevents the oxidation/deterioration caused by such contact. In other words, ice glazing ensures that a product so treated will remain fresh and nutritious much longer than a more conventionally packaged product.


Yes, the French are a little like that, aren't they? A bit ice-glazed, but perhaps for the purpose of maintaining their cultural "freshness" and personal independence--the frostiness serving as a protective envelope to keep them safe from over-exposure and cultural/emotional "oxidation."  In other words, the average Frenchman is a pretty autonomous guy--sealed by his very culture--against rot and deterioration. As a consequence, once the ice glaze is melted (by sustained and/or fortuitously intimate contact), the result for the erstwhile outsider is a relationship that--like the flesh of the ice-preserved fish--is especially fresh, nutritious and free from the toxicity often induced by too many shallow and devitalizing "friendships."

The story of how my particular "break-through" took place is too long to be told here:  I'll save it for another post.  But, in conclusion, suffice it to note that I am now persuaded that Max was only superficially right: yes, the French can indeed be quite frosty.  But in the long run, Max was wrong:  once the ice glaze is melted, a "French connection" is likely to become intensely satisfying--a genuine friendship that can nourish the outsider deeply on the richness of French culture.  And so I am inclined to think that French frostiness--far from being hostile--is in fact a kind of necessary prelude to a very special French "toastiness."  So it has been for me, at any rate.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

War Against Stupidity

I recently read The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, a little book written way back in 1976 by the Italian economic historian Carlo Cipolla--but only recently published in English (even though it was originally written in that language while Cipolla was teaching at Berkeley).  I loved both Cipolla's tongue-in-cheek style and his keenly insightful definition of human stupidity:  "a stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses."

Cipolla further points out that the relative occurrence of thus-defined stupidity within any given group is a constant wholly unrelated to other factors (such as socio-economic status or education): in other words, the possession of wealth, power, or education in any combination or configuration whatsoever does not in any way ensure that an individual will not be stupid.

Since this tiny pamphlet was intended to be a literary tour de force, not a scientific treatise, Cipolla does not bother to present elaborate statistical evidence to prove his "law."  Rather, he trusts that his readers' experience will corroborate his own and thus validate his arguments.  As indeed my experience certainly does.

For instance, it is obvious to me that:  a) a great many rich people are stupid (Donald Trump has nothing to gain from his cringe-worthy stances on politics--and don't even get me started on the damage done--to others and now, finally, to himself as well--by the contractor who shoddily built my house); b) an astonishing number of powerful people are stupid (what will Tea Party legislators gain by shutting down the government?); and, c) countless so-called "smart" people are stupid (any college faculty lounge brims with idiots willing to harm their careers in the long run for the momentary pleasure of sabotaging a rival).  Dumb, dumber, dumbest.

For me, personally, the most painful assertion made by this book is actually a pretty self-evident verity that, as an educator, I have nonetheless stubbornly resisted: stupidity cannot be eradicated--not by anything--not even a good educational system or by powerful teaching.  Nature, it seems, has a yet-unexplained need for stupidity--just as, apparently, it has a need for a few more boy babies than girl babies and for a steady supply of homosexuals (who just refuse to stop occurring, much to the chagrin of the religious right)--and it has accordingly hard-wired our species to provide, in spite of all well-meaning rectification efforts, the requisite numbers of crackbrains and holy fools.

In other words, those of us who were/are teachers may do a perfectly marvelous job of dispensing knowledge (all the latest techniques, all the exhausting effort).  But no matter how well we accomplish that task, a relatively constant percentage of our students will nonetheless turn out "stupid" (even if they are accepted to Harvard).  That's rather discouraging, isn't it?

Still, let us accept the truth, since it is a truth (whether or not Cipolla proved it with a scientific study).  Where does that leave those of us who cling desperately to our non-stupidity?

Well, since we cannot eradicate the stupidity of the stupid ones and since Nature seems implacable in its determination to replace any crackbrain lost by attrition, our only recourse is to confront these incorrigible blockheads and to fight them, vigilantly, unceasingly, determinedly--with words, of course, but especially with actions. Above all, as Cipolla reminds us, we must resist the temptation to underestimate the potential these singularly zealous people have to do harm. We cannot just sit back and "be nice" while they sow discord, wreak havoc and--if they acquire sufficient influence--blithely undermine the very foundations of our social contract.  Nor, certainly, can we successfully "compromise" with them. This is because stupid people are afflicted with a kind of brain impediment which a) prevents them from understanding the notion that both sides can sometimes win and b) makes them believe erroneously that the other guy's loss is necessarily a "win" for them.  Since, therefore, "win-win" is a foreign concept to a booby and since, consequently, his/her sole objective in human interactions is to make others lose without regard for his/her own advantage, any "deal" with a stupid person is almost certainly doomed to either collapse and/or turn out badly for all concerned.

President Obama--not himself a stupid person--nonetheless seems unable to learn this lesson and persists in trying to negotiate with the boobies who control Congress.

I doubt that this is the right tactic, Mr. President.  And it may be the undoing of your administration.  Governance by compromise was probably possible once upon a time--when the level of stupidity in Congress was no greater than its level in the population as a whole.  In such a "balanced" situation, logic and reason could occasionally prevail, I suppose, even when intelligent people had to make deals with "bandits" (a race distinguished from the stupid by their reluctance to behave irrationally in defiance of self-interest and without regard to outcomes). But now? When, since 2010, the Tea Party Stupids have acquired effective control of the legislative process?  No, Mr. President, negotiation and deal-making can no longer provide a win to anyone, don't you see that?  Don't you see that the stupids will never permit anyone (and especially not you) to win--even if they, also, win thereby?  So, if you want a victory, Mr. President--as distasteful as you, a refined and (alas) aloof gentleman, find belligerence--you will simply have to get down in the muck and WAGE WAR, marginalizing and neutralizing the boobies and their hapless, intimidated allies.

Not a pleasant scenario for a man who hates confrontations and who prefers preaching to brawling, is it?  Well, sir, I don't pretend to know what specific tactics you might ultimately employ in this war (you figure it out:  you've got a good brain and many advisors.)  But I'm pretty sure it's your only chance--and, by extension, the only chance for the majority of Americans who, in spite of the Tea Party successes/excesses in Congress, remain (I sincerely hope anyway) non-stupid. Can we count on you, for once, to be audacious?  You already won the Peace Prize.  Now it's time for WAR.

Fair Inequality

We hear a lot about equality.  It's a popular agit-prop word, sure to elicit a knee-jerk reaction. Everyone, apparently, is in favor of equality.  Until, that is, we stop to think about it.  What do we mean by this term?  Equal opportunity?  Equal legal rights?  Equal income?  Equal responsibility? Equal status?  Equal wealth?  Equal health?  Equal appearance?  Equal sexual prowess?

We really don't mean all of those things, do we?  And we really don't believe very strongly in equality, except in very specifically delineated contexts.  For instance, most Americans would agree that everyone should have an equal opportunity to succeed in life (i.e., equal access to education and employment; we quibble about health care, but mostly about how to finance it, not about whether or not we should have it.)  Similarly, most Americans would espouse the notion that everyone should be treated equally before the law--though not necessarily the corollary that every law should apply to every person.  In other words, we believe that an individual, in whatever endeavor he/she engages, should be judged and "positioned" according to his merits, as measured by a criterion common to all. 

Beyond that, I'm not sure.  Generally, our outrage against inequality springs less from not having the same qualities as others and more from not having the same opportunities as others and/or not being evaluated according to the same standards as others. Any reasonably sentient person understandably resents being treated as intellectually, socially or economically inferior to people who, in an entirely objective world and judged according to universally standard measurements, would themselves be the inferior parties.  The catch here, is that notion of "universally standard measurements."

What is the universal standard against which people should be measured and according to which rank, wealth and influence should be distributed?  I'm guessing here, but I wonder if our "merit meter" isn't pretty much the same as our "morality meter," i.e., we assign both merit and morality to behavior that serves to advance the common good, that serves to enrich our lives as human beings and as a community (and not merely the life of a particular individual within the community). On the other hand, conduct that does not contribute to the common good or behavior that affords advantage only to some, often at the expense of others, is perceived as both "immoral" and "unfair" (inequitable).  Similarly, compensation of any sort, when incommensurate with one's contribution to the commonweal, provokes resentment.

Thus, I rail against the uber-rich Kochs (and feel "cheated" by them), not because my economic inferiority is wrong per se, but because in "buying" elections, the Kochs are using their wealth in ways that are not justified according to our "merit/morality meter," in ways that exploit rather than contribute to the overall well-being (including mine).  On the other hand, I can honestly say that I felt no sense of injustice in being subordinate (in both authority and salary) to a talented principal such as Walt Holmes or to a brilliant mind such as Brandon Zaslow.  Both of those men were contributing more than I was and, probably, more than I ever could, given the inalterable and/or freely accepted circumstances of my life.  

So maybe what we mean by "equality" is nothing more than our quest to be treated--by society and the "system"--at least as well as others who a) possess similar qualifications and competencies, and b) against whom we are either obliged or freely choose to be judged (an important point, I think, since voluntary refusal to be "measured" is tantamount to an acceptance of inferior status).

In any event, my main point remains the same:  human beings do not really believe in absolute equality. Rather, we quite comfortably accept elaborate hierarchies of responsibility and compensation, even as we occasionally (rather sheepishly) whine that "it isn't fair."  We know, deep down, that much of the time it is fair--and that we, personally, could never (or would never) perform the function that the envied person performs.  And so, our resentment is directed more at the randomness and arbitrariness of the universe than against any individual incarnation of that arbitrariness.  We believe in FAIR inequality, but we want the playing field to be level (I hate that hackneyed metaphor, but it's useful) and we want the criterion used to distribute rank and reward to be a criterion applied universally and objectively to all people who either must or wish to be measured.  Fair enough?

Sunday, July 14, 2013


Is it because I'm old?  Is it out of frustration that time flows in one direction only?  Is it due to resignation and a growing sense of helplessness?

I don't know.  But increasingly--almost alarmingly, I guess--I just DON'T CARE.

So many things that used to matter, used to distress or excite me, used to provoke intense emotional reactions (either positive or negative) no longer maintain any real purchase in the registers of what the ed. psych. professors once called my "level of concern."

Long ago, for instance, I gave up worrying about my childhood obsessions:  germs, poisonous mushrooms, ground glass surreptitiously slipped into hamburger patties by child-hating butchers and/or Martians.

Then, somewhat later, I realized that all of my fussing and handwringing and superstitious earth-hugging would do absolutely nothing to alleviate the loss of topsoil in Iowa or the oppressive pollution in L.A.

Also, along about that time, I stopped being excited about sex--at least with other people--(since it generally provided only transitory and remorse-inducing thrills, nothing of enduring worth).

Next, after myself posing as a pedagogical guru, I gradually lost interest in mastering new and supposedly "more effective" ways to teach the unteachable--foreign language--or indeed, anything at all--at least to unmotivated and intractable students (I noted, however and coincidentally, that ANY technique whatsoever would work with students who truly desired to learn, yet another reason to ignore the ever-changing but never more-efficacious teaching orthodoxies).

Now, at age 69, I find myself not caring (or caring very little) about all of the following subjects that once preoccupied me mightily:

--global warming (some organisms will survive, some won't:  if human beings go, it's more or less good riddance, especially in Charleston, South Carolina.)
--wrinkles and gray hair (though I still pluck my nostrils and ears)
--anti-abortion laws (stupid people, including women, have always oppressed women:  I don't see how this can be changed short of universal electro-shock therapy)
--religious bullshit and terrorism (the religious impulse--fear of death, really--is too deeply ingrained in the human psyche; people will always find a "holy" reason for killing their neighbor)
--wars (innately bellicose males need an outlet and an excuse for either snuffing out or bonding with other guys)
--right-wing nuts (humans are afraid of change)
--left-wing nuts (humans are afraid of staying the same)
--people who can't or won't spell correctly (life goes on, language changes and, eventually, we'll just text pictures anyway--like cave men equipped with i-phones--no one will have any further need for writing)
--ugly strip malls (they will fall apart in a few years)
--overhead power lines (I'm losing my visual acuity and I'll never get to live in San Francisco anyway)
--Chinese economic and/or political hegemony (long may they rule and build walls and washing machines)
--birthdays (duh)
--Israel, Palestine, Russia, North Korea, Iran and, you know, pissant rogue states (S.N.A.F.U.)
--the U.S. Constitution (it's outdated and dysfunctional, but it's become too "sacred" to be ditched, so just shut up and learn to love deadlock)
--Texas (fools need their asylums)

I confess, however, that I still DO have strong negative reactions to painful medical and dental procedures, to popcorn ceilings and to men wearing white socks with black shoes.  Similarly, I continue to react positively to good coffee, good wine and any kind of foie gras, regardless of how cruelly it was produced.  So I suppose one could conclude that I am not yet in a fully vegetative state.

I wonder, though, if anyone really cares.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Crimes Against Humanity: Lions and Tigers and Bears

What, exactly, is a "crime against humanity"?

I ask because, once again, the airwaves are full of reports about "crimes against humanity"--in particular, about Syrian President Assad, who has supposedly used lethal gas (sarin?) to eradicate large numbers of his own people--Syrians rebelling against his regime.  U.S. President Obama says that in using poisonous gas, Assad has "crossed a red line" and that some kind of American response must be forthcoming in order to protect the interests of "humanity" against such "crimes."

But, as much as I abhor the notion of chemical warfare, I nonetheless think that Washington's outrage about the supposed illegality of using gas on a civilian population is itself little more than, well, pompous and sanctimonious "gas."  After all, there is no "law" universally recognized and sanctioned by the power of any universal authority that prohibits a particular nation-state from taking any action it pleases on people living within its borders.

Oh, I know, there is the 1925-29 Geneva Protocol and the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention which ban the use and stockpiling of chemical weapons.  And there are all those United Nations resolutions and statutes and blah blah blah.  Syria, however, is not a signatory to the CWC (though I gather it did sign a 1949 version of the Geneva Protocol).  As for the various UN resolutions, etc., I defy you to make any real sense of any of them.  In general, their vague and platitudinous language reveals them for what they essentially are:  attempts to justify the occasional intervention of one or another world power in the internal affairs of some less-powerful state.  They are rationales for political action couched in the language of morality and hiding beneath the vague assumption that there exists, out there in the ether somewhere, some absolute, all-transcendent, natural law which must be enforced by any strong "good" state (particularly, it would seem, when this so-called law is broken by some weaker "bad" state).

But there is no clear articulation of said natural law, let alone any formulation of a philosophically valid underpinning for such a law (i.e., an objective criterion which all humans would agree to and against which conduct could/should be measured in order to determine whether or not it constitutes a "crime against humanity"). Above all, no clear-cut (i.e., effective) enforcement procedure is specified or agreed to.

All we encounter in U.N. documents such as the Rome Statute of the International Court is an unstated assumption that everyone "just knows" what constitutes "inhumane" conduct. Many examples are mentioned--murder, rape, genocide, persecution of minority groups--but, alas, no clearcut definitions of these terms are provided (and we all know that the understanding of what constitutes "murder" is almost certainly quite different in Saudi Arabia than in Denmark).  Moreover, and tellingly, this gaseous and toothless "statute" goes on to caution that a crime against humanity is not actually committed until or unless such vaguely defined inhumane behavior reaches a certain "threshold" of frequency or intensity!!

"However, murder, extermination, torture, rape, political, racial, or religious persecution and other inhumane acts reach the threshold of crimes against humanity only if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice. Isolated inhumane acts of this nature may constitute grave infringements of human rights, or depending on the circumstances, war crimes, but may fall short of meriting the stigma attaching to the category of crimes under discussion."  (Rome Statute Explanatory Memorandum, emphasis mine)

This little memorandum nicely lets all of the world's establishment powers off the hook.  We Americans (and Brits and French and Australians) are the good guys, after all.  So, yes, maybe we occasionally terminate with extreme prejudice some suspicious agitators, torture a few nobodies in Guantanamo, incarcerate a few unwashed political protestors on trumped-up charges, use racial profiling to persecute undocumented Latinos into "self-deporting," collect personal data on millions of internet users who use words such as "bomb" in their e-mails.  But surely these acts are not sufficiently "systematic" and "widespread" to warrant the qualification of "crimes against humanity."

Apparently, then, what the U.N. is worried about is not the actual nature of inhumane conduct (which it does not attempt to define in terms of any universally applicable law or principle) but merely the scale of this nebulous behavior (not kind but degree).  You mustn't do too much that other people and other governments--especially governments with big military establishments--disapprove of.  If you do too much and too ostentatiously, and if you are relatively weak in comparison to disapproving other countries, then your behavior risks reaching that critical "threshold" at which it may be judged (by others) as a "crime against humanity."  In which case, beware, because this condemnation might then, quite possibly, be used as a justification for military intervention into your internal affairs--"corrective" action to punish you--not so much for doing harm (heck, everybody does that), but for doing it on such a large scale and within such full view that you make uneasy other governments who prefer to keep their mischief more restrained, more discrete, more conventional.

You, the criminal country, must then be taken out to the woodshed by the "good" countries. (This is "enforcement"?)  You must be punished for being too uppity--and above all, for being "inhumane" in ways that are too visible and too detached from the usual rationales that mankind uses to justify inhumanity. It is just not OK to flaunt your nastiness, to flip off the good guys and their religious and philosophical apologists.  In short, your crime lies most especially in your egregiousness--by which you give a bad name to government in general.

So it really all just boils down to one thing:  the powerful countries impose their will on less powerful countries and they do so by claiming to serve the interests of "humanity" when, in actual fact, they are serving only their own national interests.  (If the United States had no national interest in ensuring stability in the Middle East and/or in pleasing Israel, or if Syria possessed more substantial military or economic clout, I can assure you that there would be no question whatsoever about committing American troops and treasure to punish Assad's "crimes against humanity."  Oh, yes, we fussed and fumed and wrung our hands about Soviet gulags--but the USSR had nuclear missiles--so we just sorta pushed the "threshold" further out, didn't we?).

Well then! It's all a humbug!  All countries commit acts that are of dubious morality even when measured against the dubious and often mutually contradictory criteria provided by philosophers and divines. Obviously, some countries are more equal than others in this regard.  Still, one thing is clear:  we punish only the little guys or the losing guys--and only when punishing them will satisfy some need--psychological or economic--within the borders of the "good" (or, in the case of war, the "winning") country.  Oh, the horror! The horror!

I am reminded of La Fontaine's wonderful fable "Les Animaux malades de la peste" in which the entire animal kingdom (i.e., "humanity") is threatened by the plague (i.e., some vaguely understood, but very real "inhumanity").  It is decided by the royal court (the U.N.?) that this evil must be Heaven's punishment for some criminal activity ("crime against humanity") and that, consequently, if the guilty evildoer can be found and punished, the threat of the plague will automatically disappear.  A trial is conducted (Nuremberg, Eichmann) and, surprise!, all of the powerful members of the court are exculpated for their understandable and "trivial" misdoings--the lion for eating sheep and a few shepherds; the tiger and bear and the mastiff for killing, but only in the most saintly manner (the U.S. for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Britain for Dresden, Russia for the gulags and the pogroms). However, it is discovered that the donkey (Assad)--a truly villainous and scurvy fellow--is guilty of the most unimaginable and blasphemous atrocity:  eating grass on a monastery lawn!  This vile beast is, of course, condemned and immediately dispatched for his monstrous crime against humanity--er, animality.  La Fontaine drily concludes:

"According to whether you are powerful or lowly/ The judgments of the royal court will paint you white or black."

Please don't misunderstand me here.  I do NOT condone the violence going on in Syria.  Nor do I disagree with the judgment that it is "inhumane" (though, along with Sam Harris, I think I actually have a practical and working understanding of what this term means).  What I hate, however, is the hypocrisy and bad faith of Western governments, who seem to forget that they, too, commit daily crimes against humanity.  I also dispute the notion that, in the absence of a world government, the United States has an obligation/ moral duty to play the role of enforcer of some universal "law" that has never been either articulated or justified. Human beings have, since the beginning of their existence as organized groups, behaved inhumanely toward other groups--all the while, I suspect, believing that this self-serving villainy was somehow for the "good" of everybody.

So, until we have a world government which will, in fact, define "human good" and then put in place a mechanism for enforcing this definition, I firmly believe that the best course for individual nation-states, unless they are actually threatened or implicated, is to abstain from intervening in the internal affairs of other states.  "Crimes against humanity" will never be stopped--can never be stopped--until humanity--all of humanity--in the form of a universal Human State--is in agreement about exactly what constitutes such crimes and about exactly how a force instituted and authorized by this selfsame Human State should punish such universally recognized "crimes against humanity."  

Monday, April 29, 2013

Naked or à poil?

Some years ago,  I read a best-selling (but apparently not very scientific) book called The Naked Ape, in which the author, Desmond Morris, made a number of titillating claims about the differences between homo sapiens and the other great apes.  Among these was the notion that the breasts of human females are preternaturally large in order to appeal continuously (rather than cyclically, as is the case with other apes) to the human male, who in order to cope with such perpetual stimulation, has therefore been equipped by nature with a disproportionately large and intractable penis (an assertion belied by the painting to the left).

But I am not going to talk about breasts or penises, so if that's what you were expecting, you can stop reading now.

What interests me today is Morris's teasing assertion that human beings are "naked," i.e., hairless.  That, of course, is good marketing but utter nonsense--because no matter how frequently we depilate, shave, pluck or submit to the agonizing indignity (both corporal and financial) of a Brazilian Wax, we remain quite subject to (and obsessed by) body hair.  OK, not as much body hair as adorns a baboon or a gorilla--but quite enough to belie the title of hairless or "naked."

And my goodness, how we fiddle with and fuss about that hair!  Too much, too little, too gray, too dark, too straight, too frizzy, too too too.

It seems that human attitudes toward hair hinge upon three main concerns--the solutions to which vary according to culture, era, and individual:  1) how much hair is acceptable?  2) where is that hair acceptable? 3) what appearance should that acceptable hair assume ?

Well, of course, everybody knows all of this, so there's no point in belaboring the obvious.  What I would like to do, in the remainder of this post, is provide some visual evidence of humanity's hair obsession:

How much?  Well, most cultures insist that nature has afforded Morris's "naked" ape too much hair.  Consequently, almost all civilizations have insisted upon limiting at least some body hair.

But where?  This seems to be a matter of wildly fluctuating opinion.  Still, a few "near" constants obtain: by and large, humans find cranial hair not only acceptable but desirable (never mind the self-inflicted baldness of monks and certain basketball players.)

Opinions about hair in other places seem to diverge according to culture and, sometimes, gender:  underarms? legs? face? pubes? anus?  They say that Julius Caesar had every hair on his body plucked regularly (his cranial hair disappeared of its own accord)--which probably made him acceptable to no one except, post facto, Desmond Morris.

And finally, if unlike Caesar, we have some remaining hair (body, cranial, facial)--and most of us do--what appearance should we give the various clumps of the stuff we have chosen to retain?  This is the "hairiest" of the questions, isn't it?, because hairstyles vary as wildly as cultures and fashion trends.  Short, long, wavy, straight, bangs, stubble, bedhead, sideburns, goatees, mustaches, bouffants, pageboys, pony-tails, mohawks, cornrows, etc.  And what color?  Blond, brunette, redhead, rinsed, bleached, highlighted, blahblahahahaha.

No, Mr. Morris:  we are definitely NOT naked apes.  On the contrary, we love passionately our various snatches of hair--even more (I'm sure of this, given the money we spend on hair-care) than our preternaturally large breasts or even our large intractable penises.  In fact, we rely upon and use the little bit of hair that we have to keep those breasts and penises stimulated and working properly.  No, no, no, we are never really "naked,"sir--instead, let us say that we are sometimes (the best of times), as the French correctly put it, à poil. 

Relative Weepiness

I often make fun of John Boehner and his tendency to weep spontaneously--usually in response to stimuli that I, personally, do not find particularly moving (cheesy jingoistic renditions of "America the Beautiful", cliché-ridden commencement speeches, Republican support for millionaire tax breaks).  But, on the other hand, I, too, cry quite a lot.

About a pretty wide range of topics.

I cry at news reports of mothers drowning their babies in the bathtub; I cry when reading stories about dogs who refuse to leave their dead owners' graves; I cry as I watch my nephew making his two-year-old daughter giggle by tossing her in the air; I cry when I remember some of the heartless emotional suffering I too-often inflicted on my parents; I cry when I cannot seem to shake my loneliness.

Obviously, tears are a kind of safety valve:  like that gizmo on old-fashioned pressure cookers which releases a bit of steam when built-up pressure threatens to blow the whole vessel to smithereens.

But wouldn't it be interesting to conduct a study to find out exactly what makes people so emotionally or physically "steamed" that they need to blow off pressure in the form of tears?  Are the "heat sources" the same for everybody--objectively uniform?  Or does an individual's "tearing point" depend upon entirely subjective, personal factors?

Well, duh.  Once again, the answer is obvious:  relative weepiness, like relative humidity, is a kind of ratio between responses that are unique to ourselves divided by responses that we share with all humankind.  On day X, for example, I experience 20 personal tear triggers--out of a possible 30 universal tear triggers.  On that day, my relative weepiness is 62%, and I do not cry, though I may be a bit overcast.  On day Y, however, I experience 35 personal tear triggers--again out of a possible 30 universal tear triggers.  Thus, on that dismal day, my relative weepiness is 116%--and I will probably blubber from dawn to dusk.

It is likely that only hot fudge sundaes (me) or visits to tanning salons (John Boehner) can alleviate oppressive relative weepiness--and staunch the flow of tears.