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.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Nagasaki mon amour

I don't pretend to understand the Resnais/Duras film Hiroshima mon amour, (which I saw many years ago and only dimly recall as "not making much sense.")  The critics, though, say that this film is a meditation on the role of memory in reconciliation and reconstruction--of both a bomb-devastated city and an emotionally shattered woman.

I thought a lot about that "memory stuff" when I visited Nagasaki last autumn.  Just how "healing" is memory?  And just how does "what we remember" shape the nature of our reconstruction?

An individual's memory is, of course, selective--and never entirely factual.  As Proust and others have shown, we remember what we need or want to remember, altering this and that and, in the end,  weaving together objective and subjective "truths" into a narrative fabric that provides a past that we find personally constructive and necessary.  We use memory to shape a reality that perhaps never "was" but that for some reason necessarily "is."

So it is, also, perhaps, with a nation's collective memory--or, as Nagasaki demonstrates, with the collective memories of several nations, most notably of Japan and the United States.

How initially odd, it seemed, on the day of our Nagasaki visit, to be an American, a countryman of both those who ordered the bombing and those who carried out the lethal mission.  But my initial discomfort dissipated quickly.  Everywhere we visited--the Peace Park, the Ground Zero site, the Museum, the various Monuments to the Victims--everywhere, there were crowds of tourists (most, it seemed, English-speaking) AND cohort after cohort of school children (all Japanese, of course).  And everyone was evaluating the sights quite comfortably, I thought, probably  according to a "memory" constructed either personally or "officially", some long-internalized narrative about the Meaning of Nagasaki.  (Actually, in the case of the schoolkids, the narratives were probably even then being transmitted to their brains from the already well-honed and by now comfortably "digested" memories stored in the teachers' nervous systems.)

Alas, it seems to me now--in retrospect--that the supposed "lesson" of Nagasaki is considerably weakened by this very understandable human tendency to refine memories--like we refine flour--in ways that make them more "digestible." Because I can't avoid thinking that Nagasaki, the supposed monument to a monstrous-evil-that-must-not-be-repeated has somehow been transformed into a Shrine of MisRemembrance--a nicely sanitized tourist attraction.  Oh, don't get me wrong:  the museum contains numerous artfully arranged, carefully documented, and technologically sophisticated exhibits.  Outside, the Peace Park, blessedly free of T-shirt souvenir stands, comprises tastefully designed flower beds, sculptures and fountains.  But the very beauty and serenity of the place seemed to make a mockery of its avowed purpose:  to horrify mankind with memories so intolerable that never again will we allow such inhumanity to occur.

In short, the Peace Park, Museum, Ground Zero--all were so remarkably tolerable and "digestible" that they reminded me strongly of a Japanese bento box lunch, so pretty that the actual taste of the food is of secondary importance.  As the Japanese kids scurried laughingly to take group pictures in front of the monolithic Ground Zero marker, the American tourists seemed to gravitate toward the life-sized mock-up of the bomb itself, where they enthusiastically photographed family members saying "cheese" in front of the innocuous-looking "Fat Man." I, too, took exactly such photos.

I conclude, then, that our collective memories--which both produced and are reinforced by this memorial complex--are somehow deliberately, (perhaps necessarily?), MISremembering what happened here--almost as if we, Americans and Japanese alike, are telling ourselves "well, yes, it happened, but not exactly."

So I return to my initial question.  How does that work, precisely?  How does memory "reconstruct" reality and transform what was intended to be an unbearably painful Memorial to Human Evil into a pleasant School Field Trip and/or Popular Shore Visit?

I suspect that the collective Japanese memory is a composite of shame, horror, sorrow but, interestingly, very little anger.  And this memory, oddly, manifests itself in a kind of "perkiness"--a refusal to think too deeply about it all, a collective denial that "it" was really EVIL.  The school children, of course, scrambled about happily, polite but clearly more fascinated by the destructiveness than by what had been destroyed. And after leading us through the museum--full of gruesome and startling mementoes, our pink-umbrella'ed guide cheerfully conducted us back to the bus, where she immediately mounted an amateurish little puppet show to teach us how to make souvenir "peace"cranes.  The take-away message:  very sad, must not happen again, but no one was EVIL, everything "happened, sorta" because of circumstances.

Meanwhile, many of us Americans were engaging in our own forms of selective and reconstructive remembering.  Our awareness of Nagasaki--less deep than that of the Japanese, and derived mostly from half-watched TV and half-read high school history books--probably included sorrow and sympathy, perhaps some national pride, but little sense of guilt or responsibility.  So we Americans, too, visited each of the regular Nagasaki "stations of the cross", snapped our pictures--but refused to believe that we--America--had done an EVIL thing.  Similar take-away message:  very sad, must not happen again, but no one was EVIL, everything "happened, sorta" because of circumstances.

In both cases, then, it seems to me that our national memories have constructed a kind of bad faith "reality"--a narrative that comforts, that allows reconciliation and business dealings, but (perhaps for that very reason) will NOT accomplish the stated goal of the Nagasaki shrine:  to prevent this from happening again.  As long as the "evil" of war --and of nuclear weapons--is neither felt deeply nor even fully acknowledged by the visitors, the pious admonitions beneath the "nuclear proliferation" exhibit serve only to underline our nearly universal phariseeism and hypocrisy.

In any event,  as I left the Peace Park (and especially as I giggled in spite of myself at the guide's absurd puppet show) I felt a sudden wave of revulsion.  This whole place, I thought briefly, was itself "evil"-- designed to make the visitor feel good about feeling bad, to make us feel OK about stuff that, you know, "happened, sorta" way back in 1945, but that, gosh, even the puppets know this, will never happen again.

Then the nausea passed as quickly as it had come, and, as the bus rocked soothingly along, returning us to the cruise ship and to "real" reality, I unexpectedly dozed off.  I suppose I had been healed:  less by my memories themselves than by their juxtaposition with the guide's incongruous puppet show.  Nagasaki mon amour.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Mass for Atheists

Over the past five years, my thinking about religion has evolved more quickly than at any other point in my already notoriously fickle history of beliefs, disbeliefs, church-joining and church-leaving.
After all my flipflopping and recidivism and born-again this or that, I have finally reached what I sincerely hope is my "final" spiritual phase:  simple, unrepentant atheism.

Or, more accurately, I suppose, agnosticism--since I am not absolutely "sure" that there is no God--I merely see no evidence that there is and I therefore suspect that there is not.

Consequently, for the sake of intellectual integrity, I have found myself obliged to discontinue my participation in all rites, rituals and ceremonies associated with an almost certainly non-existent supernatural being.

Interestingly, though, this withdrawal from religious ritual has caused me considerably more grief than has my renunciation of Christian belief.  Quite honestly, I find that I do not miss any of the untestable and unprovable dogmas enumerated in the Nicene Creed--but I DO miss the simple (mindless) recitation of the Credo itself--as part of a regular, unchanging, reliable liturgy--something I can count on to calm me, console me and, yes, mesmerize me, emptying my mind of all thought.  I wonder how many Catholics (or Episcopalians or Lutherans) would admit that, when it comes right down to the nitty gritty, what they truly believe in--much more than in God or Jesus or Transubstantiation or Consubstantiation or whatever--is the beautiful and utterly mind-numbing mumbo-jumbo of the Mass itself.

Priests, shamans, witch doctors, kahunas--all have known, for as long as mankind has contemplated the mystery of life, that we humans require regular doses of mumbo-jumbo (i.e., magic) in order to infuse our otherwise humdrum and painful lives with a sense of wonder, joy, and communion with others.  So no matter how they defined or envisioned the "transcendance" they served, mankind's spiritual magicians have always sought ways to impress us, awe us, excite us, exalt us--with displays of beauty (or horror) that unabashedly appeal to all our senses.

Unsurprisingly, earth's holy men and women are well-paid for their efforts--not always with money, to be sure--but with respect and power.  Also unsurprisingly, some take selfish advantage of their position, duping and exploiting their "faithful."  Fortunately, others choose to use their ceremonies--their sacraments--primarily to serve, primarily to bring about in their fellows that sense of joy, gratitude and communion that Christians call "the eucharist."

But, alas, ALL of this "good" stuff is traditionally dispensed within the context of an organized religion, a rigorous system of beliefs largely insulated from evidence and reason--including nonsensical and (in my opinion) frequently unjust and harmful demands for human behavior.  That "bad" context is what I feel must be discarded, lest the total package be more injurious than beneficial.  Yet I would dearly love to keep the "good" stuff--the rituals, the eucharistic magic.

So I wonder how long it will take for atheists and agnostics to realize that we, too, despite our rejection of the mythological and dogmatic context, nonetheless have a very real need for transformative ritual--for a kind of "church" or "congregation of unbelievers" who meet regularly and celebrate all that is joyful, sacred and mystically binding in purely human life.  A John Lennon sort of celebration.  A John Lennon (dare I say it?) sort of church.

When will we begin organizing such fellowships? And when will we formulate our own liturgies and sacraments for our meeting days?  When, in short, will we be able to attend a "Mass for Atheists"?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Republican Thoughts and Prayers

Problems, problems everywhere--but after much reflection, we Republicans conclude that there is only one good solution to the multifarious evils that beset our Republic:  PRAYER.

Last week, for example, we found it necessary to defeat gun control measures proposed in the Senate (some called them "modest," but we know a slippery slope when we see one).  Of course, we expressed our deep "regret" that so many innocent lives have been snuffed out in so many episodes of gun violence, but well, no, we simply cannot accept background checks for gun buyers, and no, we cannot ban assault weapons or limit ammunition purchases (slippery slopes, remember).  What we can do, and we do so enthusiastically and lovingly from the bottom of our compassionately conservative hearts (surely that is enough) is send out to victims of gun violence our sincerest and profoundest "thoughts and PRAYERS."

Yes, indeed, fellow compassionate Americans, we invite you to join us, your deeply concerned Republican legislators, in a determined and uncompromising resolution to Pray Away Gun Violence! 

But wait!  Not merely Gun Violence!  In fact,  we hereby commit ourselves to Praying Away All Problems!  Isn't this a truly inspirational idea, fellow patriots--a perfect program for a party committed to both compassion and fiscal prudence (why must cynics call it selfishness?)?  Because prayer, as we all know, as we have all experienced, is simultaneously the most effective and the most inexpensive solution for any problem that presents itself.

For example, in 2005, there was that French nun, Sister Marie Whoziz, who prayed to be healed of Parkinson's disease and, voilà, she was healed, just like that.  Not only was the cure-by-prayer cost-free (unlike Obamacare), but now the good sister is even making money for her order by doing speaking tours in the U.S.

And remember Ted Haggard, the anti-gay evangelical minister who, in 2006, was outed for having an icky gay relationship with a masseur?  Well, deeply ashamed, Pastor Ted committed himself to "pray away the gay" therapy, and, bingo! according to others who prayed for him, he is now 100% heterosexual!  Another incredibly cheap miracle!

Then, too, there's the uplifting story of Baptist minister/politician Mike Huckabee, who by his own admission was a disgusting tub of lard when he became governor of Arkansas.  So he prayed and prayed and prayed and, lo, he eventually lost his appetite for chicken-fried steak and gravy. Praising the Lord while pedaling his bike, our Mike-boy shed both belly and behind and, in the process, managed to pen a well-selling book entitled Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork.  Another example of simultaneously efficacious and profitable prayer!

Well, the list of "pray away" success stories goes on and on.  We haven't even mentioned Governor Rick Perry's 2011 campaign to pray away the Texas drought--as a result of which, rain arrived only four months later, immediately after the close of the Atheist Alliance's Freethought Convention (according to always-reliable Wikipedia).  Nor does this brief blog afford sufficient space to discuss the abundant historical evidence of happy outcomes brought about in the distant past by praying evils away (evils such as: Philistines, pigs, demons, angels of death, storms, wild beasts, Satan, leprosy, Egyptians, figs) and enumerated in such eloquent and incarnadine detail in The Holy Bible, The Holy Qu'ran, The Holy Bhagavad Gita and All The Other Holy Writs of Mankind.  We devoutly refer our readers to these indisputable testimonies to the power of prayer.

Suffice it, then, to summarize briefly our new platform.  The Republican Party hereby adopts what we regard as the Perfect Political Program Against All Evil:  Pray It Away!!!  (PPPAAA:PIA)

Pray Away Gun Violence
Pray Away the Gay
Pray Away Poverty
Pray Away Sickness
Pray Away Drought
Pray Away Global Warming
Pray Away Unemployment
Pray Away Fat
Pray away Dirt

Yes, even the ultimate evil--dirt!  Ladies (we assume all good homemakers are women), be assured that the Republican Party has not forgotten you, lowly as you are.  Indeed, we feel your pain this springtime, as you contemplate that filthy carpet or floor and those nasty rain-streaked windows.  And we urge you to abandon the outmoded mop, vacuum cleaner and SqueeGee:  they are only temporary, Democrat-advocated solutions--too expensive , too time-consuming for prudent and goal-oriented conservatives.  We send you our thoughts and prayers and, above all, our compassionate advice for a permanent, divinely-sanctioned solution:  just get down on your knees and PRAY THAT DIRT AWAY.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Say Yes to the Dress

Pants, trousers, leggings--whatever you call those tubular casings in which we so obligingly stuff our nether limbs--well, they're a villainously barbaric invention, as anyone who ever had a wedgie (and who hasn't?) can attest.

Why do we continue to tolerate--nay, crave and covet and cherish these wretchedly uncomfortable garments?  Are we masochists?  Do we enjoy inflicting pain upon ourselves?  Or do we relish the sense of bondage, imprisonment, voluntary servitude imposed by the tightness of trousers?

Seriously, I think pants are satanic:  waistbands and belts dig mercilessly into our bellies; inseams pull and jerk at our private junk; cuffs or hems catch on our calves or snag on our heels.  Nothing good can be said about these diabolical torture devices.

Other societies, both past and present, have authorized males to clothe themselves more sanely, more comfortably:  tunics, kilts, dashikis, kimonos, even a well-draped toga allow more intimate wiggle room than the wretched bindings foisted upon us by barbaric Gallic tribes.

It just makes no sense at all to continue to gird our loins with pain.  Gentlemen, let us just say "yes" to the DRESS.

Riddled by Guilt

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 (presumably through our own "most grievous fault") 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, thereby arrogating 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 constitutes definitive proof that--despite our presumption--we are not gods, we are not free, we are not perfect, and that we are, in fact, evil, and selfish and sinful.  Original Sin, then, amounts to little more than the guilt we feel 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 this awareness, and the appertaining guilt, to knowing nothing at all.

What interests me in this blog is the way(s) in which humans cope with this guilt.  It seems to me that several responses can be chosen--and it's here that I'm going to play around with American political attitudes by looking more closely at four possibilities :  A) the Religious (Save Me) Republican response; B) the Humanist (Save You) Democratic response; C) the Libertarian (Fuck You) Republican response;  D) the Persecuted (Fuck Me) Democratic response.

Unquestionably, in deeply religious America, the most popular response is Type-A--the Religious (Save Me) Republican response (espoused by a good many Democrats as well).  The person holding this belief is, essentially, puerile and lazy 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 delinquent to escape the punishment (death) he richly deserves.  Jesus (but also Allah and Yahweh and Quetzacoatl) will "forgive" and/or "redeem" our puerile 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) Democratic response.  These Type-B individuals (of whom I am one) are relatively adult and responsible in their thinking. (Naturally!) 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 seek refuge from their responsibility by fabricating divine saviors and superhuman redeemers.  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, in the original sense of the word, 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 Christ to save sinful man; Jesus, himself, more closely resembled a Type-B, advocating human freedom and responsibility.)

The third and fourth types of responses can probably be considered--and dismissed-- together, since they both involve a categorical refusal to acknowledge personal guilt and/or responsibility.  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 their bad faith are apparent.

For instance, the Libertarian Republican says, with Ayn Rand and Rand Paul, "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 you must also do what you please, insofar as you are able; if you cannot care for yourself, then you deserve to die.  But I WILL NOT DIE. Hahaha."

The Persecuted Democrat, on the other hand, but with similar blindness, asserts--along with countless pseudo-Marxist apologists--that he is a helpless victim.  "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."

Both truly far out!

I'm not sure what legitimate (if any) conclusions I can draw from this little exercise in politicizing the riddle of guilt.  Maybe I was doing nothing more than indulging myself in seeing patterns and parallels where, in fact, none exist.

I do believe, though, that at the very least, I have shed a bit of light on Republican vs. Democratic mentalities.  Obviously, there are plenty of exceptions and plenty of overlaps.  But I still believe that Type A and Type C persons--childishly believing that selfishness and greed are either a) forgiven, and therefore allowed, by virtue of belief in a savior or b) justified up front because "that's the way it is"--these people generally vote Republican.  And the Republican platforms advocating survival of the fittest and favoring the rich few over the poor many certainly reflect this "forgiven" and/or "unrepentant" individualism.

Similarly, Type B and Type D persons tend to vote Democratic, enshrining in Democratic platforms the social activist notion that individuals do have responsibility for other human beings, either because "sharing the wealth" provides moral salvation for rational adults or because "collecting welfare" provides temporary sustenance to those who cannot (or will not) escape their economic dependency.

Perhaps this is all too neat and simplistic.  Have I presented Type B individuals too positively?  Have I been a bit unfair to the Libertarians and the Religious Right?  Oh, for heaven's sake.  Now I'm beginning to feel guilty.  And I think it's your fault.  Oh, wait.

Adam and Eve must have really enjoyed that damned apple.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Wait Tree

Once rustling,
The cardinal flyover tree,
Pecked and gnawed,
Droops down
As I, too, nod into

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Constitutional Morality: Constants and Variables

Dang!  I can't seem to get beyond this obsession with morality/constitutionality!  So I guess I'll just have to prattle on a bit more about the ideas I began to explore in yesterday's "Morality, Marriage, and Fruits."  Forgive me.  Or stop reading (is anyone reading anyway?).

In his Moral Landscape, Sam Harris makes it clear that (like Hume, Mill, Kant, etc.) he is seeking some sort of common denominator permitting rational people to transcend the moral relativism that proceeds inevitably from any serious examination of the sundry, wildly-conflicting codes of behavior known to actually exist on our tiny planet.  Amidst all of Earth's mutually-exclusive and often bitterly antagonistic moralities, amidst all this subjectivity, is there no objectivity?  Amidst all these variables, is there no constant?  Is there no definitively reliable guide for right conduct?

Well, as I mentioned in my previous post, there might, indeed, be such a constant. But it would not find expression (cannot do so, as we shall see) in a systematic, absolutely invariable body of laws.  Rather, if I am on the right track here, it would be the fundamental principle upon which laws (that vary according to time, place, and other contingencies) should be based and from which these derive their validity. Though the good philosophers I cited have all argued amongst themselves about details and exceptions, yet the majority still agree with Harris (and Pascal?) that "le principe de la morale" is a constant, viz. : "good" conduct is behavior which a) avoids harming humans  and b) advances the well-being of humans.  Likewise, "bad" conduct is behavior which harms humans and/or inhibits the overall flourishing of the species (or the society--a point to which I must return in another blog).

Little more, in short, than the Golden Rule (be charitable to others) or, at least, the Silver Rule (don't harm others).

The rub, of course, is determining how we know what is good for humankind (yet another blog?).  Harris asserts that we can and must do so via the scientific examination of evidence:  we apprehend the good by making scientific inquiry.  Many of the other pontiffs of morality would probably quibble, but for the sake of argument, let us accept Harris' assertion.

Which means that, yes, we have a constant upon which to base our morality, a reliable yardstick against which to measure the validity of our Constitution and our collateral laws.  But by the same token, the Constitution--and especially the collateral laws--are not, cannot be, constant.  (Justice Scalia speaks nonsense when he says that the Constitution is dead.)  No, the framework of our laws, together with the laws themselves, must evolve as our society evolves, else our codes of behavior risk becoming destructive of the very ends they were (ostensibly) intended to foster--i.e., the advancement of human well-being.

Let us take an example.  While the overall well-being and survival of humanity might, at one point in time, have justified--say--laws requiring women to be subordinate to men (it was advantageous for weaker, child-bearing females to be protected by physically stronger males), changes in social structures and technology have, over the centuries, made it possible for women to survive and prosper as equals, without being dependent on men.  Hence, a woman's well-being, in the 21st Century, is better served by laws guaranteeing her equality with, rather than her subordination to, a man.  Ergo, while the principle of "human well-being" remains objective and unchanged, the laws enforcing that principle must change in accordance with changes in human reality.  The "standard" is constant; the rules by which the standard is implemented are variable.

So it is that, over time, parts of an official (usually written) constitution can become--well--unconstitutional--i.e., out of sync with that which is broadly accepted, perhaps even scientifically demonstrated (a la Harris) as necessary and right for human advancement within a society whose "realities" have evolved or changed from a previous state.

And this, I think, is the situation now facing the Supreme Court, and the entire country, in terms of same-sex marriage.  Just as the Constitution and our legal system had to change in order to discard outdated (and, in modern times, oppressive) moral notions about women, so, too, our "moral judgments" and our fundamental laws must soon be updated in order to acknowledge that neither homosexual relations nor same-sex marriage inhibit the common good--and that prohibitions of either do cause emotional, economic and, sometimes, physical harm to gay citizens.

I conclude, therefore, that if Harris' "moral constant" is fairly applied to the "landscape variables" as they now exist in the United States, our Constitution must very soon "evolve" (as so many politicians have recently done) to accord complete sexual and marital equality to all consenting adults.  Dear Justices of the Supreme Court: it is time to make the Constitution moral once again.  Do your job!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Morality, Marriage, and Fruits

At some point in late spring or early summer, the Supreme Court will issue two judgments affecting the way our legal structures--and, to some extent, our society as a whole--view same-sex marriage.  Will the Court rule that the federal Defense of Marriage Act (whereby federal institutions must refuse to acknowledge and, most significantly, perhaps, accord financial privileges to, same-sex marriage partners) is unconstitutional--as the Obama administration has already determined (and therefore refrained from defending DOMA in court)?  And will this same court agree with the federal Ninth District's ruling that California's Proposition 8 (amending the state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage) is unconstitutional?  Or, alternatively, will this Republican-dominated court rule that both DOMA and Proposition 8 ARE legitimate and legally binding upon all those subject to the Constitution of the United States?

As the debate rages about whether homosexuals should be allowed to marry, what interests me most is the relationship between constitutional legality and what Justice Scalia sometimes calls "morality."  (Scalia is infamous for suggesting that judging homosexuality to be immoral is just as legitimate as judging murder to be immoral.) In short, most of the arguments--both pro and con--seem to hinge on conflicting definitions of "morality" and on the attendant question of whether or not "morality" (however it is defined) can or should be the basis of our system of laws--our Constitution.

Well, I could do a lot of quibbling here, but if by "morality" we mean "right" (i.e., "good," "useful," "productive") conduct, then it seems entirely logical that the advancement of such right-doing (and the prevention of corresponding wrong-doing) should, indeed, be enshrined as the fundamental principles of our social contract (Constitution).

The problem, obviously (as Scalia's comparison makes clear), is that "good" conduct must be measured according to some particular yardstick, standard or paradigm.  And, alas, in our diverse society, we cannot seem to agree upon what standard(s) we should use--apples or oranges or prunes.  The Christian Bible (Scalia's referent)? The Enlightenment notion of Natural Rights (the "inalienables" of the Declaration of Independence)?  The ancient conservative belief in Tradition For It's Own Sake (what we've "always" done)?  Muslim Sharia Law?  Or, ideally, some other, more universally "rational" standard?

Forgive me, but I need to do a bit of personal birdwalking here--just to help clarify my thinking about several of the possible standards of morality I have just mentioned.

Sometime about a decade ago, as I was slowly and painfully shedding my beliefs in supreme beings and universal, absolute "goodness," I also stopped clinging to the comfortable Jeffersonian illusion that certain "inalienable" human rights are built into the physical laws governing the universe.  No, it seems highly unlikely that there is some clockwinder god "out there."  There just is no almighty power beyond the universe that has shaped the universe and decreed what is good and bad for all that lives and moves within the universe; in short, no categorical authority against which every movement of the universe can be measured and judged as "right/good" or "wrong/bad." Things just are and they function in accordance with their contingent nature, coming, going, living, dying, evolving without any externally determined plan.

So I reject both of the types of morality most frequently mentioned:  Natural Law and Religious Commands. The universe doesn't care what piddly little humans do or don't do, and there is no God who has dictated holy writs telling us whether we can sell our sisters into slavery--or not; whether we can eat bacon--or not; whether we should throw our children into volcanoes--or not--whether we must have children--or not--whether we are obliged to cut off our foreskins--or not--whether we are allowed to have multiple spouses--or not--and, finally (for the present argument), whether any spouse we marry can be same-sex--or not. We are on our own!

Why am I persuaded that this is so?  Evidence.  Rational, empirical, scientifically demonstrable evidence.  Oh, I'm more than a little familiar with the anti-reason arguments:  our limited, finite minds cannot possibly grasp, let along comprehend, the infinite--and therefore possibly God-directed--universe.  Yeah, but if a God were directing anything at all, we would surely have some empirically perceivable evidence.  Whereas, in truth, our sense-guided reason can conclude only the contrary:  there is NO there there.  (This is not the place to take up the endless and fruitless arguments denying the evidence of science; those who choose to deny this evidence will, of course, do so.  But I cannot.  Not any longer.)

So, as I said earlier, I must reject any absolute morality based upon either Natural Law or Categorical Religious Commands which, as law professor Brian Leiter says, are"insulated" and "unhinged" from evidence and reason--and which cannot, therefore, be validated by any objective criteria.

This does not mean, however, that I reject the notion of a morality that is founded on evidence and reason.  Here I take my cue from Sam Harris, author of The Moral Landscape, who argues that the only moral framework worth talking about is one where "morally good" things pertain to increases in the "well-being of conscious creatures."  Such a morality could not be derived from nonexistent "natural" universal laws--but it could, and must, be anchored in the nature of our species--in what is good for us as human beings--in what will advance us, move us forward, guarantee our survival in a universe that is perfectly indifferent to us.

So that is our good, our morality--nothing decreed by a divine authority, nothing inscribed (like karma) in the very structure of the universe--but merely WHAT IS GOOD FOR HUMAN BEINGS (it might not be good for extraterrestrials or even for any of the other species with whom we compete for survival--viruses or bacteria or killer bees).

If I had my 'druthers, we would somehow agree that our Constitution (indeed, all constitutions) should be based upon this objective and scientific criterion:  morality is that which serves to advance the well-being of conscious creatures (and, concomitantly, immorality is that which serves to impede or inhibit the well-being of conscious creatures).

Consequently, were this the morality Justice Scalia espoused, he would of course be justified in condemning murder as immoral, since murder, except in very special circumstances, can be proved (by evidence) to be injurious to the well-being of sentient beings.  Of course, Scalia's morality is not evidence-based.  Instead, it is a categorical, religious morality--based on the Bible, not on evidence, not on empirically verifiable criteria.  By coincidence--and purely by coincidence, the bible-based stricture against murder dovetails with evidence-based morality.  But the same cannot be said of Scalia's judgments regarding homosexuality/gay marriage.  These hurtful and hateful "moral" imperatives--plainly intended to restrict the self-actualization of consenting homosexual adults--whose actions in no way harm the commonweal--serve no constructive purpose in a legal structure founded on "advancing the well-being of conscious creatures."

Murder and homosexuality?  Apples (subjective, Bible-based morality) and oranges (objective, evidence-based morality).  Murder is immoral for both apples and oranges.  But homosexuality and homosexual marriage are immoral only for apples.  Rotten ones.