Monday, November 30, 2009

We the powers that be not

On Friday (in "Thanksgiving what-if"), I proposed:
What if We the People (the powers that—through our elected representatives—be in this country) were to abolish Thanksgiving and establish a program...?
The sad fact is that We the People can hardly do anything anymore. We are so far from being "the powers that be" that even our ballots make little difference. That's one reason why fewer and fewer citizens vote. I acknowledge this reluctantly, and with sadness, for as recently as last year I condemned non-voters for shirking their civic responsibility.
    Well, as often happens, given the excellent op-ed columnists I read in The New York Times, one of them has identified some reasons why we no longer have much power. In "Advice from Grandma" (November 22), Thomas L. Friedman named "six things [that] have come together to fracture our public space and paralyze our ability to forge optimal solutions":
1) Money in politics has become so pervasive that lawmakers have to spend most of their time raising it, selling their souls to those who have it or defending themselves from the smallest interest groups with deep pockets that can trump the national interest.
When we think about it, we tend to think that this reason alone is sufficient to render us voters powerless. The other five things hardly seem worth mentioning:
2) The gerrymandering of political districts means politicians of each party can now choose their own voters and never have to appeal to the center.
    3) The cable TV culture encourages shouting and segregating people into their own political echo chambers.
    4) A permanent presidential campaign leaves little time for governing.
    5) The Internet, which, at its best, provides a check on elites and establishments and opens the way for new voices and, which, at its worst provides a home for every extreme view and spawns digital lynch mobs from across the political spectrum that attack anyone who departs from their specific orthodoxy.
    6) A U.S. business community that has become so globalized that it only comes to Washington to lobby for its own narrow interests; it rarely speaks out anymore in defense of national issues like health care, education and open markets.
Yet these five are "worth mentioning," if only to deliver the coup de grâce: If we thought we'd become irrelevant because our representatives have been bought, we now know (or have just been told) that there are all these other reasons why we'll likely never be able to buy them back. "These six factors," writes Friedman,
are pushing our system, which was designed to have divided powers and to force compromises, into the realm of paralysis. To get anything big done now, we have to generate so many compromises—couched in 1,000-plus-page bills—with so many different interest groups that the solutions are totally suboptimal. We just get the sum of all interest groups.
    But Friedman has an answer!
...The real answer is that we need better citizens. We need citizens who will convey to their leaders that they are ready to sacrifice, even pay, yes, higher taxes, and will not punish politicians who ask them to do the hard things.
Somehow I find Friedman's "answer," though the "better citizens" part is no doubt in some way true, rather beside the point, in the sense that it will never happen. I fear we're going to suffer Friedman's "otherwise":
Otherwise, folks, we’re in trouble. A great power that can only produce suboptimal responses to its biggest challenges will, in time, fade from being a great power—no matter how much imagination it generates1.
_______________
  1. Friedman had argued earlier in the piece that America is still the most imaginative nation on Earth.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Some people are even funnier

In my post, "People are funny" (November 23), I described two features of Islam, fundamentalist Christianity, and Fox News [sic] devotion that makes their respective people more pliable than others.
    Thomas L. Friedman, in today's piece, "America vs. The Narrative," in The New York Times, discusses some further problems with what he calls "The Narrative" of Muslims (Arab Muslims in particular):
Many Arab Muslims know that what ails their societies is more than the West, and that The Narrative is just an escape from looking honestly at themselves. But none of their leaders dare or care [sic] to open that discussion. In his Cairo speech last June, President Obama effectively built a connection with the Muslim mainstream. Maybe he could spark the debate by asking that same audience this question:
Whenever something like Fort Hood happens you say, "This is not Islam." I believe that. But you keep telling us what Islam isn't. You need to tell us what it is and show us how its positive interpretations are being promoted in your schools and mosques. If this is not Islam, then why is it that a million Muslims will pour into the streets to protest Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, but not one will take to the streets to protest Muslim suicide bombers who blow up other Muslims, real people, created in the image of God? You need to explain that to us—and to yourselves.
I am grateful that Mr. Friedman mentions the Danish cartoons in the statement he offers President Obama. But a more pointed contrast to a million Muslims protesting the cartoons would be some Muslims protesting the behavior the cartoons caricatured.
    Oh, right, Friedman refers to one of those behaviors.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving what-if

All day yesterday, even as I was enjoying our company for Thanksgiving, enjoying the bright afternoon (after a foggy morning), enjoying the turkey, the candied sweet potatoes, the Brussels sprouts and carrots, the fruit salad, the stuffing, the cranberry sauce, the Vouvray, and the whipped-cream-topped pumpkin pie [I didn't take the photo shown here, by the way; we didn't have any green beans and tomatoes], I was bothered by something just not quite right about Thanksgiving.
    What could it be? It's a good holiday, a day off from work (for many people, though by no means all). Most families that are able to, get a few of their members or some other relatives or some friends together for an unusually plentiful table and the pleasure of convivial feasting.
    It's a solid tradition in America; perhaps no ritual is more "American." The fact that Thanksgiving is a ritual was emphasized to me in the afternoon. We went walking after dinner, my wife and I, our two guests (a friend and her little boy), and our poodle Siegfried, and I asked a woman also out walking (by herself) whether she'd had dinner yet.
    "Oh, no," she said, "we had Thanksgiving on Sunday."
    She and her lot had already done the ritual, which didn't even have to be performed on the official National Day of Thanksgiving.
    And, of course, there's the ritual of a Presidential Pardon for that lone turkey, who doesn't know to be glad not to know that millions of his brethren weren't so lucky.
    By the way, according to Gail Collins, in her op-ed piece, "A Tale of Two Turkeys," yesterday in The New York Times, the turkey pardon "only goes back to George (the Good One) Bush and 1989." That particular ritual isn't so solid that President Obama couldn't have just skipped it and restored a bit of gravitas to the Office. Pity that he didn't.

Over night, as I lay sleepless at times from a stomach suffering from the unwonted plenty (or possibly just the wine), I think I figured out what bothers me about Thanksgiving. And a comment from my wife at breakfast this morning captured it synecdochially.
    She tapped a picture on the front page of one of our local newspapers. "Look at this," she said, "those poor people having Thanksgiving dinner off tiny paper plates."
    The caption says:
...eat Thanksgiving lunch Thursday at First Baptist Church in Mebane. More than 200 people visited First Baptist for the annual holiday meal.
    According to an article in The Washington Post on November 17,
a new federal report...shows that nearly 50 million people—including almost one child in four—struggled last year to get enough to eat.
What if We the People (the powers that—through our elected representatives—be in this country) were to abolish Thanksgiving and establish a program for ending unnecessary hunger in the United States?
    Surely We (and our elected representatives) are resourceful enough to come up with a program that wouldn't be too liberal, or too conservative, or too Christian, or too Jewish, or too Muslim, or too secular for a majority to buy into.
    Under such a program, everyday would be a day of thanksgiving. We'd no longer limit ourselves to just the one, official national day for those hungry millions not to go hungry because a local church provides some turkey and stuffing on a small paper plate.
    What if?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I'm going to die of something, but likely not this

Heart disease will apparently not be the cause of my death. I had an ECHO stress electrocardiogram (EKG) yesterday. My doctor recommended it because she had recently discovered a change in my routine EKG. The transmission time had increased for an electrical signal from my "right bundle block," I think she said. She thought we should try to rule out the possibility that there might be a coronary artery blockage.
    Having been reading Nortin M. Hadler, MD's book, Worried Sick: A Prescription for Health in an Overtreated America, I asked a few questions designed to find out whether the test were really necessary. "Would whatever we find have any practical value?" "Would possible interventions make any sense anyway?"
    She stuck by her recommendation that I have the test.
    The otherwise nice technician didn't use enough lather (if she used any?) to shave some patches of hair off my chest before sticking the EKG leads to me and taking readings of me lying, sitting, and standing prior to her greasing my chest for the pre-treadmill sonogram. The sonogram took so long that I fell asleep during it. I was, after all, lying down—in my favorite position on my left side, and the lights were out so she could see the graphic image of my pumping heart on the monitor.
    Then the cardiologist came in and explained the treadmill procedure. She always uses the "Bruce" schedule that calls for 3-minute intervals, with the speed and incline of the device increasing for each after the first.
    I guess the cardiologist thought I was doing pretty well, because after three or four intervals she asked me what I did for exercise.
    "Well, not much really. I just walk across campus as part of my commute. I pass most of the undergraduates, even the twenty-year-old girls in tight pants whom I might prefer to slow down and follow at a good watching distance if it weren't for the exercise."
    "Oka-a-ay," she said, "maybe we'd better not go there."
    I'm not sure in which ordinal interval I called it quits, but it was after about twenty seconds into it, after I'd finally begun to jog rather than walk fast. It was at a pretty good incline, too.
    I was instructed to lie down again, quickly, no talking, for the post-treadmill sonogram. I lay down breathing fast and deeply, feeling good, maybe a little smug.
    After the cardiologist did the sonogram, she said everything looked "super," she could see nothing to be concerned about.
    I asked her how fast the treadmill was going during the last interval.
    "Six miles per hour. And you went more than two minutes longer than the last time we did this. Nothing wrong with your heart!"
    "You mean, if I'd kept that up for an hour I'd have covered six miles!" I think the chart on the wall said that at 6 MPH, the treadmill was inclined to 18 or 20 degrees.
    "That's right," she said.
    "Or died along the way," I added.
    "Yes, that's entirely possible," she said.

A principle of my old friend (and Yale roommate), Dr. Hadler, in his book mentioned above is that since we all die of something, we need to weigh the value of any medical intervention against the possibility that we might die of something else before we die of whatever the intervention is supposed to forestall. I trust that this layman's paraphrase is accurate; in no way can I convey the elegant definitiveness of Nortin's text.
    It would appear that no medical interventions on behalf of my heart will be necessary. The cause of my death will most likely be the failure of some other part or system or my body (or accident).

Monday, November 23, 2009

People are funny

In a conversation at work this morning, someone uttered the truism that "People are funny," then added:
They're even funnier than we are!
We all laughed, I appreciated the reminder that we, too, are "funny."
    In various ways and to one degree or another, we, too, are "pliable"; my wife, for example, can readily twist me around her proverbial little finger. So what about Muslims, whom I referred to on Saturday? Why single them out for their allegedly greater pliability?
    The self-questioning is prompted by a friend whose intellectual acuity I admire (and ignore to my loss of gain). He commented on Saturday's post that "The...relative pliability of Muslims [is something] we could discuss further, but probably without benefit," by which I took him to mean that I might be merely stating my prejudice and have no data (especially scientific) to prove my statement.
    I admit that he's right. If there are any data to support the contention, I haven't seen them. My observation derived entirely from news and articles and books about the world scene over the past few years, especially after September 11, 2001.
    Note that I added two other groups to keep the Muslims company. Even though my friend ignored the fundamentalist Christians and the devotees of Fox News [sic], I'd like to give a couple of reasons for singling these three groups out, not, of course, that every individual in them is equally pliable. These reasons aren't data in any numerical sense, but maybe they can raise the level of discussion a little higher than just my personal prejudice.
    All three groups are heavily invested in their "scriptures." We know what those are for the Muslims and the Christians. For the Fox devotees it's the words that are spewed out of the mouths of people like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. For their devoted followers, whatever these rousers say is "fair and balanced" in the same way that the Qu'ran and the Bible are the "word of God"—because they say they are.
    The status of these scriptures with the respective group members makes the members particularly vulnerable to being manipulated. The Muslim activists had but to quote the pertinent passages from the Qur'an about what to do to blasphemers to get the masses to sharpen their beheading tools and take to the street looking for infidels1.
    The preacher cites Leviticus 18:222 in urging his parishioners to oppose gays and gay marriage (or even civil union). They show up at the polls like a phalanx to vote that one issue, everything else be damned.
    Sean and Glenn say to get out to the town meetings and protest those wicked socialist ideas about health care and, voilà, out come the tea-baggers, some of them even wearing handguns.
    Another armament for manipulating members of these groups is the subtle, even subliminal power of Islam, literal-Bible Christianity, and fair-and-balanced Fox propaganda to induce trance states. I believe that the aura these cast over adherents derives from their focused exclusivity.
    Followers of Islam tend to over-invest in its teachings, which doesn't surprise us, given that its text demands adherents' complete subservience; nothing else matters.
    Similarly for Bible-believing Christians. Christ taught followers to forsake the world entirely; gain the world, lose your soul.
    People who get all of their "news" from Fox tend to discount everything else. To be that oblivious to objective information, you have to be in a hypnotic state.
    Engage the appropriate lever and you have near-complete control over the entranced Muslim, fundamentalist Christian, or Fox devotee.

My acute friend also challenged my statement that "the cartoons did no such thing as 'set off violent protests'; they'd have gone unnoticed but for some Muslim activists' picking them up and rubbing then in the faces of their impressionable brethren."
    He wrote:
My recollection is that the cartoons did indeed set off violent protests.
    I've spent some time googling to try to find the article that I read (or think that I read) a year or two ago that described events after the original publication of the Danish cartoons, how the "activist Muslims" I referred to had even added a couple of additional cartoons to the mix before proceeding to rouse the rabble. Alas, I so far haven't found such an article. Which of course makes me feel a bit uneasy. So, if you can find it, please do let me know.

My friend also questioned whether the story about Muslim nations seeking a blasphemy ban "has any legs":
At this point, I'm more interested in the reporting than the story itself. The reporting seems to have originated with the Associated Press. Few other news sources have picked it up. It's not on the NY Times site, the CBS site, or the CNN site. I'm wondering if interest in the ban is only in Algeria and Pakistan, thereby minimally supporting the claim that Muslim nations (plural) are behind it. And within those nations, are we talking about government leaders or leaders of large groups? Best to wait and see if this story has any legs.
See what I mean by my friend's acuity? It didn't occur to me to see who else might be reporting "the ban." But I subsequently googled on it and indeed every one of the six or eight sites I found had either picked up the Associated Press piece wholesale or worked excerpts verbatim into their own report. Even The New York Times just ran the AP piece as-is (on November 19).
    Indeed, the story doesn't seem to have any legs yet. It may never have any. The AP reporter (Frank Jordans) may have been doing about the same thing I was, using Pakistan and Algeria's latest anti-blasphemy action as yet another occasion of many to show Muslims in a bad light. I'm now wondering what other sorts of things he has written about Muslims or Islam. Just the way my friend might.
_______________
  1. Sura 10—Yunus (MAKKA): Verse 70
    A little enjoyment in this world! and then to Us will be their return. Then shall We make them taste the severest Penalty for their blasphemies.
    Sura 9—Al-Tawba (MADINA): Verse 74
    They swear by Allah that they said nothing (evil), but indeed they uttered blasphemy...Allah will punish them with a grievous penalty in this life and in the Hereafter: they shall have none on earth to protect or help them.
  2. "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination."

Friday, November 20, 2009

"Muslim nations seek blasphemy ban"

Thus ran a headline this morning on the back page of our local newspaper. The piece comes from the Associated Press, from which I take this excerpt:
Four years after cartoons of the prophet Muhammad set off violent protests across the Muslim world, Islamic nations are mounting a campaign for an international treaty to protect religious symbols and beliefs from mockery—essentially a ban on blasphemy that would put them on a collision course with free speech laws in the West.
The cartoons referred to were originally published in Denmark, on September 30, 2005. And, of course, the cartoons did no such thing as "set off violent protests"; they'd have gone unnoticed but for some Muslim activists' picking them up and rubbing then in the faces of their impressionable brethren. Have you ever heard of anyone as pliable as a Muslim?
Maybe a fundamentalist Christian, or a devotee of Fox News [sic]?
    Ah, right.
    The idea of a "blasphemy ban" would be laughable to a rational person except for the tendency among Muslims to threaten or murder people they consider "blasphemers." Are you, for example, a "blasphemer"? Have you ever uttered the sentence, "God does not exist"? To some Muslims at least, uttering even such a plain statement of fact (or at least opinion) is a "blasphemy," meaning (according to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary):
a. the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God,
b. the act of claiming the attributes of deity, or
c. irreverence toward something considered sacred or inviolable.
I note that the first definition seems to grant the existence of God. Would it be blasphemous to criticize the definition for that? I'm sure some Muslims would think so.
    The ban is being sought through the U.N. General Assembly:
If ratified in countries that enshrine freedom of expression as a fundamental right, such a treaty would require them to limit free speech if it risks seriously offending religious believers....
"Algeria and Pakistan have taken the lead in lobbying...."
    Well, such a ban has no chance of succeeding, but people unfortunate enough to have been born in a Muslim country, or dumb enough to move to one by choice, had better keep their heads down and their free thoughts to themselves.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Remembering Louis Wilson Jr.

At work yesterday, I told someone that I had been surprised recently to learn that her boss had worked for the State of North Carolina for thirty years. "I didn't think he could possibly be that old," I told her. She urged me to tell her boss that. "He'd be so glad to hear it!"
    Her saying that reminded me of an old friend who had told me one of those little things that you can never forget because you were so glad (or somehow struck) to hear it.
    The occasion was a writer-editor conference that Louis and I were having. I was conducting a two-week "new writer training" program for IBM, at a hotel in Carmel, California overlooking the Pacific Ocean. (This was in the early 1980's, during what my predecessor trainer referred to the other day with some longing as "Information Development's Golden Age.")
    Louis and the other eight or ten new writers had completed a writing assignment, and I had now edited all of the submissions and was conducting a conference with each student. The idea was to demonstrate the process they'd follow for each real writing assignment back at work.
    In one regard, Louis's work was distinctly superior to everyone else's in the program. He alone had designed the presentation as a series of two-page layouts, the content skillfully chunked to serve both the reader and the subject matter.
    But in another regard, the writing quality of individual sentences, he was clearly in need of instruction in grammar, usage, and style.
    And I told him both of these things.
    His first remark was the memorable utterance. He smiled in the disarming way he had (I seem to remember a gold front tooth, but after more than twenty-five years I'm not absolutely sure) and said, "Morris, you have the ability to tell a person he can go to hell so that he enjoys hearing it."
    I am sure that he used the phrase "go to hell" although of course there was nothing in what I'd told him remotely along that line, but writers are notoriously sensitive about criticism, so I had to assume that it must have seemed to Louis that that was what I was telling him by the grammar-usage-style part of my feedback.
    Anyway, as soon as I got back to my computer at work, I googled on "louis wilson chiropractor," and googlishly fast I found the following announcement, on the website of the Sedona Red Rock News:
Louis Wilson Jr.
March 29, 1934 — March 29, 2009
Louis Wilson Jr., Sedona, died Sunday, March 29, on his 75th birthday.
    After 20 years with IBM and 20 years as a chiropractor, Wilson retired to Sedona in 2005.
    Survivors are...and six grandchildren.
    Friends are invited to a memorial service at the Latter Day Saints church, Sedona, Thursday, April 16, at 11 a.m.
    I had had no idea that Louis was that much older than I, or older than I at all. I did the math: he must have joined IBM about the same year I did, or even a year earlier. If I was told this at the time, or told what he had done at IBM for the preceding sixteen years, I have no recollection of it.
    I of course knew that he left to become a chiropractor; he may have been taking courses in it already. I learned of this from a conversation in the parking lot where we worked. Louis was getting into his Mercedes Benz, dressed as usual in expensive-looking suit and tie. He told me that day what his philosophy was, something like "Drive the car now that you see yourself driving in the future, wear the clothes...." This seems to have been one of those New Age lessons to help make the future happen. And it seems to have worked for Louis.
    His office in the Santa Teresa Laboratory of IBM was a delight to visit. He had one or two vintage lamps, a colorful, thick wool area carpet, and several African artifacts, including a ceremonial mask and a stone sculptured head reminiscent of an image of Nefertiti. Louis had style!
    He was also fearless. I picture Louis, at an annual office holiday party, standing in a doorway underneath some mistletoe in order to bring about the opportunity of kissing our third-level manager, if she happened to come along. She did, and he took advantage. "Louis Wilson, you do not do that!" she commanded, too late. To Louis (and to me too), it was a wonderful lark.
    I visited him and his wife a few years later, on a trip back to California from North Carolina. I seem to recall that his office was in some rooms of their stately older home.
    It would have been nice to see or at least talk on the phone with Louis one more time before one of us died, but, like John E. Smith in the case of his being predeceased by his old friend Errol E. Harris, that was not to be.
    Louis and I had already had our last conversation.

Apple introduces...[hilarity]

My daughter and I recently discussed the use of statements such as "Sent from my iPhone" at the end of an email. One popular reason for ending an email like that is simply to let people know that you have a phone you can send email from.
    In that spirit, my daughter asked The Onion to send me the following email:
[Your daughter] recommends a page from The Onion. The recommended page is: Apple Introduces Revolutionary New Laptop With No Keyboard
I highly recommend that you watch their spoof, which is a trove of hilarious jokes, like "I always want to have whatever Apple comes out with next."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What's in it for YOU?

In a comment on Monday's post, I made the following offer, which I repeat here in the hope that a willing believer (or nonbeliever) will see it and would like to take me up on it:
Anyone, believer or non-believer, who would like to share what you believe (or don't believe), you are invited to do so in a comment here. And tell us what's in it for you, if you'd like to try to put that into words.
Another way of asking "what's in it for you" might be:
What is it about your beliefs or nonbeliefs that makes your life better?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Michael Moore's funniest movie to date, not

It may be too late for a Must See (MS) recommendation for a 2007 documentary, but if you still don't know (but care) what are some of the salient issues in the "health care debate," then Michael Moore's "Sicko" is a film you must see.
    However, I don't get the blurbs on the Special Edition DVD. "You'll laugh till it hurts"? (Peter Travers) "Michael Moore's funniest movie to date"? (A.O. Scott)
    Not. Not.
    No, I agree with D. Maass, who wrote on November 6, 2007:
"Sicko" is about shame. The shame we should all feel as a country for allowing a health care system where profit's made by not providing care. The shame we should all feel for not standing up to it, for shrugging off the tremendous influence insurance and pharmaceutical industry lobbyists swing and wield with our elected officials. The shame we should all feel for not caring for every human being within our borders. And perhaps, the most American shame of all: the shame of falling far behind the rest of the Western world.
Knowing the film's main conclusions from other sources, except for some of its squeamy details (like the man who sawed off two of his fingers and had to choose which finger he could afford to have reattached), I found the documentary a challenge to watch. Funny it's not, except possibly some of the shenanigans gotten up to by the liars who have been bought off by insurance or pharmaceutical companies. But these portrayals incite more to anger than to laughter.

I said some of the salient issues. One Moore overlooks is the question of America's being "overtreated," to borrow a phrase from the subtitle of Nortin M. Hadler, M.D.'s indispensable book, Worried Sick: A Prescription for Health in an Overtreated America (2008, University of North Carolina Press).
    If you have to choose between a Must See movie and a Must Read book, read Worried Sick. You'll learn infinitely more to your own personal advantage. And it's an enjoyable read, Hadler's right there with you, mind to mind.

Monday, November 16, 2009

What's in it for you?

A close friend is telling me he can't see anything in it for me, believing that God doesn't exist and death is final.
I mean, you've thrown away a crutch used by hundreds of millions of people on Earth to salve their fears and griefs about dying. You've yanked off your neck a 2,000-year-old talisman for smoothing everything out and helping you believe that everything's going to turn out all right, your sexy young body restored and you reunited with loved ones. And for your remaining time on Earth, you've thrown away a top non-pharmaceutical remedy for getting high. How can you give all that up?
    Plus, you've made yourself a target for evangelicals who think you're ripe for plucking. I know that annoys you, despite the interesting posts their arguments have led to.
    And what about the awkward situations you've created for yourself over major American holidays? "Not celebrating Christmas—what's wrong with you?" I mean, after awhile, what do you say to that?
    Wouldn't it be easier to just go along with it all? God exists, hears and answers our prayers, gets one day a week and special holidays, the whole nine yards.
You mean, I should just fake it?
No, no, of course I didn't mean that. Faking it would just avoid some of the awkwardness, and maybe the evangelicals. You'd still have to anticipate death without a potion, you'd have to deal with the cracks in life without putty and a trowel.
Are you serious? I have to ask. I mean, even you who are asking me this seem to realize that I'd have to believe things that I'm convinced are almost certainly not true. You don't believe them yourself! How have you answered these questions?
<He turns slightly red and giggles nervously> Uh, well, you know, I...I get unsure at times and wonder....I wish that I could overcome my reservations and stop not believing....You know?
I'm still listening.
Okay, okay. Just tell me, then. Don't you sometimes want to just get it all over with, kill yourself? How do you remain mostly cheerful? How do you enjoy life?
Ah, so you've been thinking about ending it all! Why didn't you say so? What are friends for?

First of all, yes, of course, it's awkward sometime. Especially when you forget to be compassionate. But awkwardness is a relatively small thing, momentary.
    Second, if you don't believe because you can't delude yourself, what's to be gained from beating yourself up?
    Third, take pride in your brave, independent mind and your well-earned moral discernment. You're a man, my friend, and a good one.
    Fourth, nothing else has really changed from ceasing to believe the untrue. The universe is no less amazing—maybe seems even more wondrous. Earth is no less marvelous—maybe seems even more beautiful. And life here and now is more precious for its evanescence.
    Fifth and final, don't postpone the important stuff. Love. Be constructive. There's no hereafter for making amends for hurting others.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A trope for life and death

It's hard to give the ExtraOrdinary (EO) rating to a movie that continually reminds the viewer of the suffering of life and the finality of death, but impossible not to give it to Charlie Kaufman's utterly fascinating, gripping 2008 film, "Synecdoche, New York."
    It stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener, who played opposite Hoffman in "Capote." (Hoffman won the Oscar for his performance as Truman Capote in that film, and Keener portrayed Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. By the way, tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the murder of the Clutter family, the subject of Capote's nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood.)
    A trope is a word or expression used in a figurative sense, and a synecdoche is a figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole. I like the nice ambiguity of the movie's title. Is Synecdoche a town in New York (like Poughkeepsie, New York), or does the title identify New York appositively as a synecdoche for the movie's subject (life and death, as I would say)?
    The movie ends abruptly with the Hoffman character's being given the stage direction, "Die," and the screen's turning white. I couldn't fail to notice the striking coincidence of watching this film (about which I knew nothing) on the day I'd posted "Unsettled question," focusing as that post does on the finality of death.
    Even a detailed plot summary can't convey the sense of this film. It has to be experienced.

Charlie Kaufman's film credits include "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004), "Adaptation" (2002), "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" (2002), and "Being John Malkovich" (1999). Also a film I haven't seen, "Human Nature" (2001).

Friday, November 13, 2009

Unsettled question

One of my far-flung correspondents writes:
In 6th or 7th grade, I was asked what I would do when I die and meet Jesus. Well, obviously if I am actually face-to-face with him, then it would not be a question of believing or not. But since that little fantasy is not actually going to occur, I am not too worried about it. We will all be <ahem> dead; we non-believers won’t have the satisfaction (?) of knowing we were "right" and believers won’t have the disappointment of realizing they were wrong.
    It's not like they'd apologize for their decades of trying to proselytize us. I’m sure that if in death they could look around and see the absolute, utter nothingness, they would still find some way to rationalize that there is a God and that heaven will come, but there must be some...waiting period...or something....
Looking around in death and seeing utter nothingness sounds like an exquisitely terrifying mental hell, infinitely worse than being stuffed into an MRI tube without being told how long the procedure is going to take. Happily (so to speak), neither the believer nor the non-believer will suffer any awareness of nothingness, nor will either know which of them was right, for in death neither will be here (or anywhere else) to experience anything, any more than either was anywhere before birth to experience anything. While we don't count it sad to contemplate all of the beings who might have been born if only all of those eggs and sperm could have gotten together, our having been born brings with it the sadness of our death to come.
    But if any particular sadness of life "tipped the balance" for me it was not the sadness of any personal misfortune, but the general sadness of the food chain, the contemplation that some living creatures get eaten so that other living creatures may live a while longer. The idea that some divine being created such a world was (and remains) so utterly repugnant to me, there was no chance that I, with my exquisite sense of justice for all, could continue to believe in the supposed being who created it. For me and my belief, it's really as simple as that.
    My correspondent reminds me that it was apparently something like that for Charles Darwin, who seems to have left for the voyage on The Beagle a Christian but after seeing "the survival of the fittest" in action couldn't believe that a loving God could be behind it.

If Jesus Christ had a hole in his own moral philosophy, this might have been it. At any rate, to the best of my recollection of the Gospels, all of his reported teachings on compassion were on behalf of humans. His heart seemed not to have been broken by the sacrifice of animals on the cruel altar of worship.
    You might have thought that the Son of the Creator of the Universe wouldn't have had such a myopic, parochial valuation of Creation. Jesus seems to have been a human being even more of his times than we might have thought, however revolutionary his doctrine of human love.

On your reading list?

Oh wow! Sarah Palin and her writing assistant's new book is "currently the No. 1 pre-order item on Borders.com, and has been steadily within the top ten on Amazon" and "received a $5 million advance," according to Kate Zernike yesterday on her New York Times blog "Rolling Out Sarah Palin’s Side of the Story."
    So exciting! Says Zernike:
According to the A.P., Ms. Palin backs up other media accounts of how she was blocked when she wanted to give a concession speech on election night (Mr. McCain and his aides believed this would be unprecedented, and a generally bad idea, given her tendency for, as the book’s title puts it, “Going Rogue.”)
Rogue Palin eclipses Maverick McCain! Will Tina Fey revise her Saturday Night Live schtick?
[Palin] writes that she sat down with Katie Couric in part because she felt sorry for her, after Nicolle Wallace, a McCain aide, said Ms. Couric suffered from low self-esteem.
Wow, Sarah went on the show to buck Katie up! She has a heart of gold!

Exciting new reading for the sort of person who follows sports scores and celebrity tweets.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

If I'm a lost sheep, so are we all

A friend, frustrated by my refusals to "believe on the name of the Lord," finally just asked me:
What DO you believe in? Where does your Hope lie? And what do you believe is going to happen to your soul when you die?
I'm glad for the occasion to write about this here. As I told my friend:
In a nutshell, I trust to chance and cautious living. When we die physically, our personal identities (our consciousnesses—our "souls" if you will) go poof.
I notice now that she capitalized "Hope," and the phrasing of the question (Where does my Hope lie?) presupposes that there must be something (outside myself?) that I can trust (or hope) to fulfill my aspirations (my hopes). I don't think there is such a thing.
    My hopes are simple. I hope that I die before my wife and children. I hope that what time I have left before I "go poof" will be tolerable if not better than tolerable.
    My friend also, curiously, concluded by saying:
As far as I can tell, no one has come up with a cure for death.
While I can't be sure why she added that, it seems to suggest that her main hope might be that she will somehow survive death—since we don't have a cure for it and are, therefore, surely going to die. (I know that she trusts, as multitudes of terrified people do, in John 3:16, "...whosoever believeth in him [the only begotten Son of God] should not perish, but have everlasting life.")
    As another friend, Nortin M. Hadler, MD, writes in his indispensable book, Worried Sick: A Prescription for Health in an Overtreated America, "Even Methuselah died." By the way, he tells me that that will probably be the title of his next book; look for it from the University of North Carolina Press.
    It so happens that I've been reading another book as well (I'm rarely not reading at least two concurrently). The other book is Irvin D. Yalom, MD's latest, Staring at the Sun, whose subtitle is "Overcoming the Terror of Death." Dr. Yalom frankly acknowledges that a signal function of religion is to help people overcome that terror. It seems to serve that purpose for my friend.
    I hasten to add that I'm not reading Dr. Yalom's book as a prescription for my own terror, but because I tend to read whatever his latest is. I learned only recently that he has also published another novel, so now The Schopenhauer Cure is on my reading list. I hope to live long enough to read it.

My friend also asked me:
And where do you get that belief from [whatever I DO believe]? That is the real issue.
She didn't say why this is "the real issue," but I guess it's a reference to what is for her the obvious fact that the Bible is "the Word of God," so why am I not getting my beliefs from it?
    I replied:
Mainly I get [my] belief from having rejected all of the fantastical, wishful beliefs to the contrary.
It should be obvious what the wishful is in my friend's eschatological Christian beliefs. (I qualify the beliefs that way to exclude from this discussion the kernal moral teaching of Jesus Christ, to which I myself subscribe: have compassion for one another, you are no more deserving than the next person.)
    Actually, from observing my friend's life, I'd say that she gets something else from her religious beliefs, something not uncommon, something that I can even recognize from having experienced it myself through religious belief: something like a narcotic high. On another occasion, my friend referred to "the God that I love so much." She wrote, quoting the entire 104th Psalm, that "in the first verses you will see His Majesty and Power." My friend is clearly high on her idea of God. This is a real, present value for her.
    Karl Marx, of course, famously referred to religion as "the opium of the people," but as far as I have been able to make out he was referring to the hope of eternal life to make up for their miserable existence here on earth.
    No, this something else that religious belief can provide is a buoyant, trance-like feeling, maybe like a cocaine or a heroin high. As much as I might like to have experienced one of those highs in order to be a better witness for the simile, I have not experienced either, nor even a marijuana high. But the religion-related highs I have experienced were transporting and pleasant.
    So, why am I not swallowing any of it? Well, I haven't swallowed any cocaine or heroin either, and I didn't finish either of the two joints I was offered. I prefer what I regard as the truth to the various fantasies of resurrection, the separation of the sheep from the goats, eternal bliss, eternal fire.

A pertinent text for this preference came to hand this morning, from Maureen Dowd's November 8 op-ed piece in The New York Times. She quoted Emeric Pressburger, a co-director of the 1948 film classic, "The Red Shoes," who (says Dowd) wrote in a letter to Deborah Kerr in the early ’40s:
No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for no other reason than her nakedness.
I do not wish to fake an escape from the existential reality of our human condition. I prefer that reality's austere nakedness, however cold like an ancient marble statue of Venus it may be. Should I suffer inordinate physical pain in my final hours, I will more than likely be glad of offered painkillers, but I am confident that I will regard the impending poof as a blessing, nothing to be frightened of2.
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  1. The photograph of the "lost sheep" was taken by my son in the hills above Rila Monastery, south of Sofia. I've used only a small detail from the original:

  2. The title of Julian Barnes's book that I was reading at this time last year—because it was his latest book.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

GBS on Frank Harris on Oscar Wilde

A special feature of the edition of Frank Harris's life of Oscar Wilde that I finally finished reading today1 is its inclusion of George Bernard Shaw's brief account, "My Memories of Oscar Wilde." Because Shaw lived until 1950, we may not remember that he was born the same year as Harris (1856-1931) and only two years after Wilde, who died in 1900.
    The part of GBS's account that I enjoyed most was his witty remarks about Harris, into which Harris inserted footnotes, on some of which GBS commented while reviewing the proof for publication:
What your book needs to complete it is a portrait of yourself as good as your portrait of Wilde....
    Pugnacious people, if they did not actually terrify Oscar, were at least the sort of people he could not control, and whom he feared as possibly able to coerce him. You suggest that the Queensberry pugnacity was something that Oscar could not deal with successfully. But how in that case could Oscar have felt quite safe with you? You were more pugnacious than six Queensberrys rolled into one. When people asked, "What has Frank Harris been?" the usual reply was, "Obviously a pirate from the Spanish main."
    ...You had quite an infernal scorn for nineteen out of twenty of the men and women you met in the circles he most wished to propitiate; and nothing could induce you to keep your knife in its sheath when they jarred on you. The Spanish Main itself would have blushed rosy red at your language when classical invective did not suffice to express your feelings.
    ...That is why, in his relations with you, he appears as a man always shirking action—more of a coward (all men are cowards more or less) than so proud a man can have been [sic]. Still this does not affect the truth and power of your portrait. Wilde's memory will have to stand or fall by it.
    ...You could not have carried kindness further without sentimental folly. I should have made a far sterner summing up. I am sure Oscar has not found the gates of heaven shut against him. He is too good company to be excluded; but he can hardly have been greeted as "Thou good and faithful servant." The first thing we ask a servant for is a testimonial to honesty, sobriety, and industry; for we soon find out that these are the scarce things, and that geniuses and clever people are as common as rats.
Here Harris placed a footnote: "The English paste in Shaw; genius is about the rarest thing on earth whereas the necessary guantum of 'honesty, sobriety, and industry' is beaten by life into nine humans out of ten."
    And GBS commented, "If so, it is the tenth who comes my way."

Shaw's account continues:
Well, Oscar was not sober, not honest, not industrious. Society praised him for being idle, and persecuted him savagely for an aberration [homosexual acts] which it had better have left unadvertized, thereby making a hero of him; for it is in the nature of people to worship those who have been made to suffer horribly. Indeed I have often said that if the crucifixion could be proved a myth, and Jesus convicted of dying of old age in comfortable circumstances, Christianity would lose ninety-nine per cent of its devotees.
    ...Now that you have written the best life of Oscar Wilde, let us have the best life of Frank Harris2. Otherwise the man behind your works will go down to posterity as the hero of my very inadequate preface to "The Dark Lady of the Sonnets." [pp. 339-343, Appendix A]
And here again Harris placed a footnote: "A characteristic flirt of Shaw's humor. He is a great caricaturist and not a portrait-painter.
    "When he thinks of my Celtic face and aggressive American frankness he talks of me as pugnacious and a pirate: 'a Captain Kidd.' In his preface to 'The Fair Lady of the Sonnets' [sic] he praises my 'idiosyncratic gift of pity'; says that I am 'wise through pity'; then he extols me as a prophet, not seeing that a pitying sage, prophet, and pirate constitute an inhuman superman.
    "I shall do more for Shaw than he has been able to do for me; he is the first figure in my new volume of 'Contemporary Portraits.' I have portrayed him there at his best, as I love to think of him, and henceforth he'll have to try to live up to my conception and that will keep him, I'm afraid, on strain."
    And GBS commented: "God help me!"
_______________
  1. Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions, 1916, 1917; 1997 edition (simply titled Oscar Wilde) with introduction by Wilde's grandson, Merlin Holland, which concludes with "Oscar's Last Days," by Oscar's lifelong friend Robbie Ross (1869-1918). As I learned from the text-overs at the end of "Wilde" the movie, Ross's remains were moved to Oscar's tomb about fifty years later, as seems to be confirmed on the web.
  2. I think we have it, in Harris's memoir, My Life and Loves, 1931.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

In memoriam Professor Errol E. Harris

With somewhat of a shock, I discovered a few minutes ago that the man who said the most flattering thing that I can remember anyone's ever saying to me died only five months ago. Born the same month as my mother (February 1908), Professor Errol E. Harris died this past June, at age one hundred and one! (My mother died in 2005, not long before her ninety-seventh birthday.)
    Here's the opening paragraph of Wikipedia's entry on Errol Harris:
Errol Eustace Harris (February 19, 1908 – June 21, 2009) was a contemporary South African philosopher. His work focused on developing a systematic and coherent account of the logic, metaphysics, and epistemology implicit in contemporary understanding of the world. Harris held that, in conjunction with empirical science, the Western philosophical tradition, in its commitment to the ideal of reason, contains the resources necessary to accomplish this end. He celebrated his 100th birthday in 2008.
My reading this year has been curiously interconnected. In Frank Harris's memoir, My Life and Loves, I read a good deal of his dealings with Cecil Rhodes, whose money founded the university in South Africa from which Professor Harris earned his bachelor's degree. Then, in the course of reading Antonio Damasio's Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, I learned that Professor Harris had himself written books on Spinoza: Salvation from Despair, A Reappraisal of Spinoza's Philosophy (1973), Spinoza's Philosophy, an Outline (1992), and The Substance of Spinoza (1995). These books are of course now on my reading list.
    When I googled Harris, not remotely imagining that he could still survive, I was actually trying to find out how I might contact his son for information about his father. I talked with the son at Berkshire School in Massachusetts in 1964 or 1965. The chess team of which he was a member had come to Berkshire School for a match. This was before I ever heard of Errol Harris. His son told me that his father was a professor of philosophy (at the time at the University of Kansas).
    Anyway, after that year teaching (mainly geometry) at Berkshire School, a semester as a "divinity student" at New College in the University of Edinburgh (when I still believed that such studies had a subject matter), and a semester teaching (English and driver education) in the high school in California from which I'd graduated, I found myself (with my new wife) in Evanston, Illinois, me to begin a doctoral degree program in philosophy at Northwestern University and her to begin the arduous task of being a graduate student's wife.
    Professor Harris was new there too that fall semester of 1966, and I took his course in the philosophy of science. At the end of the semester, when we met to discuss a paper I'd submitted (I wonder whether it, too, is in that box in my garage?), he said to me, "Mr. Dean, like Hume, you don't clothe your thoughts in wool." I felt terrible; I had only a few minutes before told him of my and my wife's decision that I was dropping out of the doctoral program, and we were returning to California.

The proximate cause, or occasion, of my looking up Professor Harris today was that I had just mentioned someone else at Northwestern to yet another person in my philosophical past, namely Professor John E. Smith (now emeritus at Yale University), with whom I got in touch this week after seeing his letter to the editor of today's New York Times Book Review, "When Dusk Is Only Dusk." Professor Smith was the chairman of the philosophy department at Yale when I was there, and I was a bursary student in his office. He wrote a letter of recommendation for my application for admission to Northwestern.
    I "postscripted" him the paragraph from Wikipedia and asked whether he knew Harris. He answered that:
We were good friends for many years, he contributed to my Festschrift, The Recovery of Philosophy In America, and we took part together in numerous philosophical symposia, etc. He wrote an excellent book on Hegel's Logic. I lost touch with him after I retired and did not know where he was. I did not know that he had passed away; the 101 does not surprise me.
How extraordinary! And what a kind and distinguished man Professor Smith is too. I am delighted, honored to be in touch with him.