Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Worshipping terrorist

According to an Associated Press release reported in a local newspaper this morning, "Official: Investigators Know Identities of at Least Three,"1 by Tom Hays and Devlin Barrett, one of the terror suspects, arrested in connection with a bombing plot that seems to have targeted mass transit in the New York area, is "an Afghan immigrant with ties to Pakistan" who "had once worshipped" at a mosque in Queens.
    Now, prompted by Steven Weinberg's observation that "with or without religion good people will behave well and bad people will do evil things, but for good people to do evil things, that takes religion," I have two questions:
Is this a good man who was [allegedly] involved in an evil deed because of the influence of the Muslim religion?

Or is he a bad man who would have been involved even if he hadn't perhaps read in the Qur'an:
God's curse be upon the infidels. [2:89]
They have incurred God's most inexorable wrath. An ignominious punishment awaits [them]. [2:90]
God is the enemy of the unbelievers. [2:98]
Theirs shall be a woeful punishment. [2:175]
Slay them wherever you find them. [2:190]
Let the believers not make friends with infidels in preference to the faithful. [3:28]
Believers, do not make friends with any but your own people. [3:118]2
Actually, a third question comes to mind:
Was it merely a coincidence that the 9/11 hijackers seem to have been Muslims or come from an Islamic culture (that of Saudi Arabia)?
Were they good men involved in those evil deeds because of the pernicious influence of their religion?

Or were they bad men who would have been involved even if they hadn't perhaps studied their "holy book"?
  1. Published in The Herald-Sun, Durham, North Carolina
  2. Thanks to Sam Harris for the five-page list of such quotations provided in his 2004 book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Animating spirit, first cause

A walk in the gentle woods of Hillsborough, North Carolina yesterday prompted me to revisit what it is about "God" that I don't believe. Not the walk, actually, but the conversation with my good friend Ralph, with whom I walked and talked. Ralph said two things that gave me pause. The first was that he finds it impossible to deny that God exists. While he is as clear as I am that "the Christian God," as he puts it, does not exist, he says that God as the animating spirit of the universe, its first cause, does necessarily exist.
    Should I be reluctant to try to think about these concepts logically? For Ralph also said, commenting on my reading of John Allen Paulos's Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up, "God is beyond argument. We can't get our minds or our logic around God." Perhaps I should be reluctant, but here goes anyway.
    What evidence is there that the universe has an "animating spirit"? The only "animated spirits" that we have any experience of are ourselves and other natural organisms. I see animated spirit everyday in the birds and butterflies and rabbits and fuzzy worms that visit (or live in) our yard. I saw yesterday the toad that jumped out of my mower's way, and I was happy that the little fellow managed it, for I hadn't seen him. But I'm learning from my layman's study of evolutionary biology and neurology that our natural, earthly spirits evolved from the physical materials that lay on our planet's1 surface and floated in its atmosphere. The jump to an overriding spirit for the universe is a very big jump indeed. My mind balks at the concept. I'm more comfortable in my empathy and sympathy for the fragile spirits around me.

First cause? I was surprised to hear that phrase from Ralph, the "argument from first cause" has been so soundly disposed of by philosophers—and mathematicians, for it happens to be the first of the arguments for God that Paulos discusses in his little book.
If everything has a cause, then God does, too, and there is no first cause. And if something doesn't have a cause, it may as well be the physical world as God or a tortoise. [p. 4]
    And yet, Ralph is sure about the universe's having been caused by an animating spirit. As I put it in the first of my "New Ten Commandments":
Imagine that "God" exists if doing so somehow comforts or inspires you....
I am glad for Ralph that he finds something like comfort or inspiration in his notion of a universal animating spirit (however far beyond his mind and logic).

That first new commandment of mine has a concluding clause, which is actually relevant to the second thing that Ralph said that gave me pause. Ralph says that the Muslim concept of God is superior to the Christian, by virtue of its being less anthropomorphic. He lauds the "peasant women of the Near East" for surrendering themselves to such a God. The very terms Islam and Muslim indicate that surrender. The concluding clause of my new first commandment expresses my contempt for this:
Imagine that "God" exists if doing so somehow comforts or inspires you, but don't fall down and worship it.
I don't think that "Allah" is any more palatable than Yahweh or God the Father. On p. 1 of Thomas Cleary's New Translation of the Qur'an, I find:
[Certain persons] try to deceive God and those who believe, but they only deceive themselves, without being aware. In their hearts is sickness, and God has made them sicker; and in store for them is painful torture, because they have been lying...God mocks them...God took their light and left them in darkness, unseeing; deaf, dumb, and blind, and not returning....
Allah is as personal to Muslims as God the Father is to Christians. And, in my view, Allah, too, is absent.
  1. I don't mean by "our planet" any proprietary ownership, for, as my daughter's Chief Seattle bumper sticker says, "The Earth does not belong to us; we belong to the Earth." (I inherited the bumper sticker with the car.)

Friday, September 25, 2009

Good or bad, with or without religion

It seems to me that with or without religion good people will behave well and bad people will do evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
So said Nobel-laureate physicist Steven Weinberg in an interview on PBS (in the early 1990's, I think, but I couldn't confirm it).
    "Still," comments John Allen Paulos, in his instructive little book, Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up:
people do often vigorously insist that religious beliefs are necessary to ensure moral behavior. Though the claim is quite clearly false of people in general, there is a sense in which it might be true if one has been brought up in a very religious environment. A classic experiment on the so-called overjustification effect by the psychologists David Greene, Betty Sternberg, and Mark Lepper is relevant. They exposed fourth- and fifth-grade students to a variety of intriguing mathematical games and measured the time the children played them. They found that the children seemed to possess a good deal of intrinsic interest in the games. The games were fun. After a few days, however, the psychologists began to reward the children for playing; those playing them more had a better chance of winning the prizes offered. The prizes did increase the time the children played the games, but when the prizes were stopped, the children lost almost all interest in the games and rarely played them. The extrinsic rewards had undercut the children's intrinsic interest. Likewise, religious injunctions and rewards promised to children for being good might, if repudiated in later life, drastically reduce the time people spend playing the "being good" game. This is another reason not to base ethics on religious teachings. [pp. 140-141]
Fortunately, my own reasons for giving up God and religion were fundamentally moral. My moral values remained intact and may even have been fortified because of my realization that I alone am responsible for the morality of my actions and, ultimately, for who I am.
    Besides, I know a number of people whose moral sensibility seems to me superior to God's as "He" is portrayed in the scriptures of the Abrahamic religions.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

An inspiration to generations of...readers

On Sunday, I reported that the dust jacket for the Library of America's edition of Wallace Stevens's Collected Poetry & Prose stated that his "poems...have remained an inspiration to generations of poets and readers." Dust-jacket hyperbole aside, one might ask what is inspirational to readers in the poem "The Snow Man" (quoted on Sunday), with its final stanza:
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
It should be obvious that the brilliant play on "nothing" would be an inspiration to poets. But what about readers not looking for verbal brilliance but emotional assurance, consolation, or uplift?
    I suppose that most readers would find nothing inspirational in "The Snow Man." They're more likely to find it in words like Robert Browning's
God's in his Heaven -
All's right with the world!
or Maya Angelou's
I've learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow.
—that is, in comforting lies.

How is a reader to respond to uncomfortable truths? It so happens that I've been wrestling with this on my own behalf for awhile—in the face of my approaching annihilation and there being no God to resurrect me and no heaven to go to. It does make me sad sometimes.
    But then, as much of late, I think on what I treasure: my wife, our children, our dog, our home, good writing, good films, good friends, my job. However old the universe, or how huge or cold, and however next-to-nothing and near to dying I am, yet while I have these things, I have something to gladden me. They're even more to treasure for being brief.
    Ezra Pound's statement from the Pisan Cantos always thrills me to recite:
What thou lovest well remains,
                            the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
But even Pound seems to lie, for what I lov'st shall be reft from me. My wife might precede me in death, though likely not. Siegfried (our dog) might survive us, but Wally (his predecessor) did not. I didn't even mention my health, but it's going to worsen, perhaps to the point where I can't hold a job, or even to where I can't appreciate a book or a film. And it will all be reft from me, in any case, when I die.
    Poems like "The Snow Man" don't inspire by comforting but by forcing us to deal with it, by recognizing what we love, and loving it while we can.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Imagining I'm alive

On my commute this morning, I came across a description in the September 7 New Yorker that is a fair description of my blogging. It's Jane Kramer on the late, long essay "On Vanity" by Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)1:
It is a meditation on dying and, at the same time, on writing—or, you could say, on writing oneself to life in the face of death, on getting "lost" in words and in "the gait of poetry, all jumps and tumblings" and in the kind of space where "my pen and my mind both go a-roaming." ("My mind does not always move straight ahead but backwards too," he says. "I distrust my present thoughts hardly less than my past ones and my second or third thoughts hardly less than my first.") And it draws pretty much the whole cast of characters from his library into the conversation....
The phrase "writing oneself to life" echoed a phrase I'd used a few days previously in an email to Joe:
If my mind isn't sparking, I feel dead. If it sparks a bit, I imagine that I'm alive. My first year working for IBM...I kept myself alive only by reading, reading, reading....
The flint of my mind is sparked by being struck by one stone or another of what I read, and my blog posts tend to be the kindling that the spark has set ablaze.
    Is it ironic that so many of my posts, produced as "writing myself to life," allude to or squarely confront my death? Only if it was ironic that Montaigne's "meditation on dying" was at the same time (to Kramer) a way of keeping himself alive in the face of death.

Previously unnoticed juxtaposition

It just struck me, the juxtaposition of my blog profile's "about me" quote from Emily Dickinson:
I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you—Nobody—too?
and the final stanza of Wallace Steven's poem "The Snow Man," which I quoted yesterday:
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
The size and age (and average temperature) of the universe, the brevity of our lives, and the finality of death do have a way of emphasizing our nothingness.
  1. "Me, Myself, and I," by Jane Kramer, in the Literary Lives column, p. 39 of the September 7 New Yorker.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Things as they were

This morning, in that box in the garage, I found the freshman paper of which Vendler's review had reminded me. It was about an inch down in the stack, titled simply "The Necessary Angel." In the inch above it, I was astonished to find even some papers I'd written in high school. If I needed any documentary evidence that I really did take seriously "the world of the mind that began to be revealed to me in high school," I'd say that I have found it—I mean more by the fact that I've kept the papers than by the fact that I wrote them, for presumably my classmates were writing papers too. But could they, too, today, lay their hands on them?
    Reading "The Necessary Angel" (about 2,000 words) wasn't a thrill. Dated May 19, 1961, it was written (typed, double-spaced) when I was early into my eighteenth year. No evidence that I was extraordinarily insightful or creative. Not badly written, but definitely a student's work. And no mention of the passage I quoted last night about reality's being "things as they are."
    My kind instructor, Professor James C. Haden, wrote a comment at the bottom (and on the back) of the last sheet that I suppose could have been the main reason I kept the pages:
I am immensely impressed by the subtlety and skill with which you pieced together an overall view of what Stevens was saying or trying to say [emphasis mine] about the nature of poetry. This is a tough job which you have done well. I do wish that you had paused now and then to explore the special meanings which Stevens' [sic] rather poetic utterances gave to such words as reality. This, in effect, is asking yourself why he says just what he does. It is a job worth doing, if only to discover whether or not his view of reality differs in any marked degree from yours. Also, it might have been helpful to look at some of his poetry, to see if it fits his own theoretical pronouncements. [Apparently I had not read any of Stevens's poems.] So there is still an interesting task ahead of you if you want to undertake it.
    I wish you all luck in your future studies. I have appreciated your thoughtful approach to our work of this year.
In re-reading that as I typed it here, I felt a shiver in my limbs—a shiver at the life I didn't live because I dropped out of my doctoral degree program in philosophy five and a half years later (and subsequently spent thirty years at IBM), a shiver at the possibility that I might yet undertake Professor Haden's "job worth doing" and that "interesting task."

I can begin by reading "The Snow Man," which I find on p. 8 in my Library of America volume. It was an early poem, published in Stevens's 1923 collection, Harmonium:
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
Thank you, Helen Vendler, for the evocative review. And thank you, too, for that television series of about twenty-two years ago about American poets, "Voices & Visions." I still have my videotape recordings. Watching the Stevens program again will be enjoyable homework.

August 13, 2011. I looked in the box again.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Things as they are

This week I was reminded by a review in a recent New York Times Book Review (August 23) that my freshman year in college I wrote a paper for Philosophy I on a book of essays titled The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination, by Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). The review, "The Plain Sense of Things," by Helen Vendler, was of a book of Selected Poems of Stevens, edited by John N. Serio.
    Vendler mentioned that the Library of America, "in 1997, gave us all of his poetry and some of his prose." I thought I had purchased the volume, and this evening I found it in my library. I was surprised to find that I had to remove its shrink wrap to confirm that it included the essays (pp. 637-751). I knew that I found Stevens's poetry difficult, but still in shrink wrap! The dust jacket includes the characterization of Stevens's "body of work of astonishing profusion and exuberance, brilliant poems that have remained an inspiration to generations of poets and readers."
    I couldn't remember whether I'd read any of Stevens's poems for that paper on The Necessary Angel, but I think I have the means to find out, for incredibly I think that I still have the paper. I can picture the box, in the garage, in which it would be. I'm too tired to look tonight, but I will tomorrow (I did), to see what reflections I might have made on a passage like:
The subject matter of poetry is not the "collection of solid, static objects extended in space" but the life that is lived in the scene that it composes; and so reality is not that external scene but the life that is lived in it. Reality is things as they are.
That seems pretty clear to me now, except for the final sentence, which jumps abruptly from the preceding sentence. It might simply be saying the "life that is lived" (reality) defines what is for us (subjectively), not the physical objects among which it is (objectively) set. I think that's essentially what I was saying to my grand nephew Joe the other day, in response to his referring to some anecdotes I'd told him about his family as "an epic story":
I'm glad you enjoyed the "epic story," though of course it's hardly that, just a few snippets (which alas is about all I have, for my sense of family narrative was always, from my early years, subordinated to the world of the mind that began to be revealed to me in high school [emphasis mine]).
That "world of the mind" had become "the life that I lived" within the scene set by my family circumstances, and realer for me than those circumstances.
    One sentence in Vendler's review made me think that I am (and perhaps was, at least incipiently, even as a freshman in college) much closer to Stevens than I'd realized:
Stevens’s conscience made him confront the chief issues of his era: the waning of religion, the indifferent nature of the physical universe....
    If I applied myself to reading the pertinent poems (Vendler mentions "the saddest of Stevens's poems, 'The Snow Man,' in which a man realizes that he must make something of a permanently wintry world of ice, snow, evergreens and wind, attempting to see 'nothing that is not there and the nothing that is'"), would I find a writer who voiced in poetry my own thoughts and feelings the way Sam Harris, for example, voices them in prose?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Maybe neither race nor "another type of conflict"?

"No, It’s Not About Race," writes David Brooks in today's New York Times about the recent demonstration in Washington against the Obama administration:
I was [at the Capitol] last Saturday and found myself plodding through tens of thousands of anti-government "tea party" protesters...I noticed that the mostly white tea party protesters were mingling in with [some] mostly black family reunion celebrants. The tea party people were buying lunch from the family reunion food stands....
    ...These two groups were from opposite ends of the political and cultural spectrum...Yet I couldn’t discern any tension between them....
    I'm not sure that Mr. Brooks's inability to discern any tension settles the matter. I've noticed that people often instinctively make nice when they come face to face with particular persons from groups they feel negatively towards. But be that as it may, Brooks writes that "It's not race. It’s another type of conflict, equally deep and old...for the ordinary people and against the fat cats and the educated class; for the small towns and against the financial centers" [emphasis mine]:
What we’re seeing is the latest iteration of that populist tendency and the militant progressive reaction to it. We now have a populist news media that exaggerates...to prove the elites are decadent and un-American, and we have a progressive news media that exaggerates...to show that small-town folks are dumb wackos.
There could be something to this; David Brooks has a way of seemingly effortlessly making a reasonable case. But I'm not sure it's all about either racism or populism, as Brooks's otherwise thoughtful piece seems to assume. Racism and populism are only two available possibilities, if attractive ones for writers to embroider (as Brooks has just done with populism and as Maureen Dowd did recently with racism, in "Boy, Oh, Boy").
    But any particular protest will likely have more immediate provocation: a perceived threat to one's tax bill, one's small business, one's access to health care, one's safety on the streets or in one's home, and so on.
    Of course, if someone is a racist or perceives "the educated class" as some sort of elitist enemy, then the person's feelings about that could modulate the specific threat into a racist or populist key. And I grant that the racist and populist strains are ripe for exploitation by the Rush Limbaughs and Lou Dobbses of the world—and by our political parties.
    To tease out just what motivated the recent protesters at the Capitol, I wonder whether, with adequate preparation, it might have been possible for a statistically significant sample of the "tea party" protesters to be surveyed soon after the event with a carefully designed set of questions. The resulting op-ed column might have been as good a read as David Brooks's and probably more informative.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The evidence for evolution

I speak of evolution as a fact. I do so, of course, because it is. And most of my readers understand that. But in case I should be visited by someone not yet in the know, I have good news today of an informative book on the subject, published this very month, Richard Dawkins's:

Extract from Chapter One

Evolution is an inescapable fact, and we should celebrate its astonishing power, simplicity and beauty. Evolution is within us, around us, between us, and its workings are embedded in the rocks of aeons past. Given that, in most cases, we don’t live long enough to watch evolution happening before our eyes, we shall revisit the metaphor of the detective coming upon the scene of a crime after the event and making inferences. The aids to inference that lead scientists to the fact of evolution are far more numerous, more convincing, more incontrovertible, than any eyewitness reports that have ever been used, in any court of law, in any century, to establish guilt in any crime. Proof beyond reasonable doubt? Reasonable doubt? That is the understatement of all time.

That comes from a longer extract at The Times Online.

Listen to Dawkins talk about the book.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

An unwatchably bad movie we actually watched

As the credits rolled following Douglas Buck's 2006 remake of Brian De Palma's "Sisters," my wife said, "That has to be the worst movie we've watched in a long time."
    "I guess we thought it had to get better, with Stephen Rea and all."
    "Even Stephen Rea has to eat."
    "The movie paid for a lot of groceries, I'm sure."
    I found a synopsis on the web:
Chloë Sevigny plays a driven investigative reporter who probes a renowned yet controversial psychiatrist (Stephen Rea). Her investigation soon discovers Rea’s disturbing relationship with one of his former patients Angelique (Lou Doillon), while a new romance blossoms between Angelique and a medical intern. After witnessing a brutal murder, Sevigny’s investigation brings her closer to the beautiful and enigmatic Angelique. As dark and violent secrets are revealed, Sevigny’s world begins spiraling out of control and she begins to question not only who she is but what her true relationship is with Angelique.
    "At least," I said, "we now know that a bad movie can get much, much worse at the very end. I don't find that out when I just apply the UBOO rating after a few minutes of trying to watch."
    "Which is fortunate for you....Don't we need to watch another episode of 'Desperate Housewives' before we go to bed?"

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Charles Darwin film "too controversial for religious America"?

I read the news today, oh boy, about a British film that failed to make the grade. It's about Charles Darwin and hasn't found a distributor in the United States supposedly because his theory of evolution is "too controversial for American audiences." So says its producer, Jeremy Thomas, the Oscar-winning producer of "Creation," according to Telegraph.co.uk:
US distributors have resolutely passed on a film which will prove hugely divisive in a country where, according to a Gallup poll conducted in February, only 39 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution.
    Movieguide.org, an influential site which reviews films from a Christian perspective, described Darwin as the father of eugenics and denounced him as "a racist, a bigot and an 1800s naturalist whose legacy is mass murder." His "half-baked theory" directly influenced Adolf Hitler and led to "atrocities, crimes against humanity, cloning and genetic engineering," the site stated.
    The film has sparked fierce debate on US Christian websites, with a typical comment dismissing evolution as "a silly theory with a serious lack of evidence to support it despite over a century of trying."
This news is rather sad. Mr. Thomas is further quoted as saying:
The film has no distributor in America. It has got a deal everywhere else in the world but in the US, and it's because of what the film is about. People have been saying this is the best film they've seen all year, yet nobody in the US has picked it up.
    It is unbelievable to us that this is still a really hot potato in America. There's still a great belief that He made the world in six days. It's quite difficult for we [sic] in the UK to imagine religion in America [and quite difficult for some of us who live here]. We live in a country which is no longer so religious. But in the US, outside of New York and LA, religion rules.
    Charles Darwin is, I suppose, the hero of the film. But we tried to make the film in a very even-handed way. Darwin wasn't saying "kill all religion," he never said such a thing, but he is a totem for people.
A day in the life of America? One hopes that Mr. Thomas is merely exploiting America's embarrassing tendency to blow its mind out in a Sunday School bus to try to gin up some publicity for the film when it does get released in the United States.

"Creation" stars Paul Bettany, the fine actor we all enjoyed as the imaginary Princeton roommate of John Nash (played by Russell Crowe) in Ron Howard's 2001 four-Oscar-winning film, "A Beautiful Mind." "Creation" was directed by Jon Amiel and also stars Bettany's wife, Jennifer Connelly. They met in "A Beautiful Mind," for which Ms. Connelly portrayed John Nash's wife (and won an Oscar for it).

Monday, September 14, 2009

Not that supreme

A couple of weeks ago (August 30), I approvingly quoted a passage from Christopher Buckley's 2008 comic novel, Supreme Courtship. It went pretty much downhill from there, the improbable plot mechanically controlling the descent. The TV judge is installed on the court, the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee takes her place on TV (as the President of the United States in a drama based on "West Wing" titled "POTUS"), POTUS's subsequent popularity fuels his run for president against the president who nominated the TV judge, in the meantime the requisite number of states ratify a constitutional amendment limiting presidents to a single term, the incumbent wins and is sued by POTUS, the Supreme Court takes the case, and the TV judge casts the deciding vote in favor of the incumbent. Wow, what a plot <ugh>.
    I'm not sure I'll read another "comic novel" by Christopher Buckley. But I still highly recommend his memoir, Losing Mum and Pup, in which Buckley reports his father's reaction to reading one of his son's novels, "Doesn't do it for me."
    Now I think I know why. From the Buckley family, in the way of fiction, I think I prefer William F.'s novels about Blackford Oakes, the Yale CIA officer.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A feisty liberal take on Obama's "civility"

In his September 11 "New Rule" column, "Float Like Obama, Sting Like Ali," Bill Maher takes exception to President Obama's sweet, conciliatory tone. Excerpt:
The Democrats just never learn: Americans don't really care which side of an issue you're on as long as you don't act like pussies. When Van Jones called the Republicans assholes, he was paying them a compliment. He was talking about how they can get things done even when they're in the minority, as opposed to the Democrats, who can't seem to get anything done even when they control both houses of Congress, the presidency, and Bruce Springsteen.
    I love Obama's civility in the face of such contumely, his desire to work with his enemies, it's positively Christ-like. In college, he was probably the guy at the dorm parties who made sure the stoners shared their pot with the jocks. But we don't need that guy now. We need an asshole.
    ...Stand up for the 70% of Americans who aren't crazy.
    And speaking of that 70%—let's call them the sentient majority—when are we going to actually show up in all this? Tomorrow Glenn Beck's army of zombie retirees are marching on Washington in protest of, well, everything.... [And they did march.]
Are we liberals indeed reluctant to assume the top dog role, much as I had to seek counsel to try to regain my dog's respect?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Movie "Religulous" demands new rating category

Since I began posting a rating for each movie I watch (about two years ago), I've twice had to create a new category to accommodate the latest movie. First there was UBOO, for the Unwatchably Bad or Otherwise Offputting movie "Bordertown," then EO for the ExtraOrdinary movie "Lars and the Real Girl." Now, for Bill Maher's 2008 documentary, "Religulous" (directed by Larry Charles), I've had to create MS, or Must See. "Religulous" is, in my opinion, a movie you must see. MS is paired with one of the other, more traditionally "quality" ratings—E (for Excellent) in the case of "Religulous."
    The obvious reason for the MS rating is the film's urgent call to grow up and abandon religion in order that humans might have a better chance of avoiding self-destuction. In this, "Religulous" adds Maher's voice to that of the writer Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Religion and Letter to a Christian Nation, whom Maher interviewed recently. (In that interview, Harris, perhaps jokingly, admitted that he'd probably stolen a few lines from Maher.)
    The movie viewers and book readers who most need to see the movie and read the book of course won't do so, even if ideally they would watch and read and consequently throw off religion. These include primarily (for Maher, I'd say) Muslims, whose militancy and the militancy of their book, the Qur'an, are emphasized in the movie, but also Christians, Mormons, religious (as opposed to merely ethnic) Jews, and, of course, the odd assortment of religious kooks of one sort or another whom Maher encountered for shockingly entertaining effect: self-styled messiahs, hallucinogenized nirvanans, and recipients of messages from gods or extraterrestrials.
    But at least the indifferently irreligious might be willing to watch "Religulous" and (one hopes) become less indifferent to, if not actively critical of religion.
    And everyone already in the know about religion will enjoy Maher, the collage of clips from old movies about the Israelites or the Crucifixion or warring Mohometans, the visit to the Crucifixion theme park in Orlando, and especially his nearly incredible interview subjects. (However, Maher's interview of Francis Collins, famous Christian scientist and President Obama's chosen director of the National Institutes of Health, seemed perfunctory and inconsequential.)
    "Religulous" is funny, informative, and alarming. A Must See movie. Because of the reason for that rating, it is most appropriate that I watched the movie on the eighth anniversary of the Muslim attacks on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and (unsuccessfully) the Capitol or the White House.

Another striking feature of "Religulous," especially for those who have seen Sacha Baron Cohen's "Borat" and "Brüno" (both also directed by Larry Charles; I haven't seen the latter yet but am familiar with it), is the way Maher engages his subjects, so unlike Cohen's. Maher presents himself as himself, skeptical, courteously (if assertively) good-natured, and surprisingly respectful for the most part. Cohen submerges himself in outrageous roles and manipulates his subjects mercilessly.

To see the list of my recently viewed movies (temporarily expanded to the last fifty or so) here's a direct link to the spot on my sidebar.

Friday, September 11, 2009

What to make of this endorsement?

Brian Finkel, a once-prominent Phoenix abortion doctor, was sentenced Friday [January 2, 2004] to nearly 35 years in prison. He was convicted last month on 22 counts of sexually abusing patients. Under Arizona law he must serve at least 29 years behind bars. His sentence could have ranged from probation to 74 years.
So wrote Carol Sowers in The Arizona Republic.
    I have in my hands a copy of a letter from Brian Finkel, dated Summer 2009 and with the salutation, "HELLO FRIENDS!!!" It opens:
I hope this letter finds you in good health and spirits. The State budget crisis has hit the Chateau d'If prison very hard. The yard is overcrowded, the food is foul, and there is no air conditioning. The Warden stopped issuing replacement clothes. Inmates are expected to buy their own uniforms or wear rags. There are too many men wearing faded shirts, pre-owned shorts, shredded socks, and dingy, threadbare pants. It sucks to be a prisoner.
    I have spent my entire life believing the truths taught by the Boy Scouts of America....
    Mr. Finkel (I'm not sure that "Dr." Finkel is still appropriate) doesn't actually profess his innocence in this letter, but he indicts the Maricopa County Prosecutor (Rick Romley) with such fervor that I'm sure he would.
    It so happens that Romley is the character portrayed in the Rob Esmay drawing that I used to illustrate Wednesday's piece about the use of the human brain. (Romley has taken the place of the blindfolded Goddess of Justice.)
    Anyway, it seems that Mr. Finkel is one of the many inmates in Arizona reported to be reading Jingle Jangle: The Perfect Crime Turned Inside Out. (The report comes from Attorney Christopher Plourd, whose defense of the author's cousin is recounted in the book.) Mr. Finkel briefly reviews the book and says this by way of endorsement:
Jim Rix is the author of "Jingle Jangle," a book that casts a jaundiced eye on Romley's office. He exposed how difficult it is for an innocent defendant to win a justice game stacked against him with unlimited treasury, dishonest and dumb cops, reptilian prosecutors, forensic whores, cowardly judges, and a jury pool poisoned by press releases filled with maggoty meals of lies and innuendo. It is an eye-opening page turner that should be read by all concerned citizens [and not just inmates!]. Rix shines a bright light on the Golden Goblet that Romley would hold out to the public. It is shiny on the outside, but Rix shows that the inside is filled with evil and filth.
    You can learn more about the Finkel case (as I did) from the "Strike the Root" website. Including that Finkel was "a $600,000-a-year abortion doctor" and "wore well-cut suits during his three-month trial."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ominous truculence

A striking feature of the presidential address to the Congress last night was the truculent faces of a good many of the Republicans in the chamber. Gail Collins seems to have thought so too:
It’s always possible that the Republicans will realize that their virulent opposition is not doing the country any good, and at least be obstructionist in a more cheerful way. Although Wednesday night, when the TV cameras caught the House minority leader, John Boehner, he looked as though he had just swallowed a cough drop. [writing in today's New York Times column, "So Much for Civility"]
She also identifies who that was who called out that the President was lying:
Joe Wilson, a member of Congress from South Carolina...loudly called the president a liar.
    This was when Obama said illegal immigrants would not be covered by health care reform. It seemed like a pretty tame remark for so much disrespect, given all the recent uproar over the president’s alleged ability to brainwash elementary school students.
    You might have expected Wilson to hold his tongue and wait to see if Obama would yell “Marxism is a good thing!” and send the commerce committee racing off to give workers control over the means of production.
It would seem that Mr. Obama won't be getting the kind of civil response from "the other side of the aisle" that his gracious, respectful speech assumed might be possible from serious adults about to stop bickering and be constructive.

At least Mr. Wilson is reported to have apologized (see "Obama Accepts Wilson’s Apology" on the New York Times blog, "The Caucus"):
The outburst was a political gift to the White House, underscoring Mr. Obama’s point that the health care debate has been plagued by incivility. Mr. Obama could not seem to resist returning to that point on Thursday, just as soon as he gave Mr. Wilson a pass.
    "I do think that, as I said last night, we have to get to a point where we can have a conversation about big important issues that matter to the American people without vitriol, without name calling," the president said. Americans, he said, "are turned off when they see people using wild accusations, false claims, name calling sharply ideological approaches to solving problems. They want pragmatism."
    As for Mr. Wilson, he said in an interview on CNN that he was told by the Republican leadership to apologize, and that he was "very grateful" the president had accepted.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Jingle Jangle on the use of the human brain

The witty glossary in Jim Rix's fine book about the wrongful convictions of his cousin Ray Krone, Jingle Jangle: The Perfect Crime Turned Inside Out, was developed with the criminal justice system in mind. But its entries about the use of the brain are equally applicable to politics and religion (both of which played crucial roles in Krone's convictions):

cerebral cortex—that part of the human brain where thinking occurs. When dominant over its counterpart, the reptilian-complex, truth prevails. When dominated, bullshit prevails.

reptilian-complex—that part of the human brain in common with snakes and programmed primarily for survival which when stuck where the sun doesn't shine dominates the cerebral cortex.

denial—a delusion of the reptilian-complex whose major symptom is bullshit, such as "The system works" and "We don't convict and execute innocent people."

Jingle Jangle's primary chapter about the reptilian-complex is "Catch-22: The Gila." Here's the chapter's haunting, poetic opening:
From southwestern New Mexico, a river born of the waters of mountain tributaries enters Arizona and travels westward across the state. The first part of its journey is mostly through mountain valleys. At Florence, its halfway point, it passes so close to Arizona State Prison that Ray would have had a view of the Gila—if his cell had had any view at all. Then it moves northwest, passing through Maricopa County south of Phoenix before turning southwest toward Yuma, where the waters that survive the Sonoran Desert join the Colorado River and eventually return to the Pacific Ocean through the Sea of Cortez.
    The Gila River shares its name with a monster of sorts, a poisonous lizard indigenous to the desert southwest. When the Gila Monster bites its prey it rolls onto its back to allow the venom stored in glands in its lower jaw to trickle down grooves in its teeth into the wound. Unlike its cousin the snake it does not have the ability to inject its poison. The Gila Monster must hang on tenaciously until its victim dies. Its reptilian brain is programmed only for survival. Should the Gila Monster bite off more than it can chew it has no intelligence to tell it to let go. So when it bites a human being it doesn’t know any better than to hang on until its own death. Fatalities among humans are rare, although it does take a pair of pliers to release the reptile’s jaws.
    The brains of the great dinosaurs that dominated the earth for hundreds of millions of years were ill-equipped to deal with the climate changes that were triggered by the impact of a huge meteorite on the Yucatan peninsula around 65 million years ago. As a result, the dinosaurs became extinct. Among the survivors were birds—the only direct descendants of the dinosaurs—and budding mammals from which humans evolved. [p. 257; drawing, by New Yorker cartoonist Rob Esmay, appears on p. 274]

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

New real life begins

Before I got home this evening, I studied the advice I received earlier in the day from my friend Eric, who taught the puppy class we took Siegfried to a few months ago:
Status comes from controlling the resources. Whoever controls the food, the door, the play, the affection, is the leader! The ethological1 definition of dominance is "primary access to limited resources." Think that by making your dog work for his resources, you are showing him that you are to be respected.
    So, before I opened the door to be welcomed home by dear wife and eager dog, I planned my new regimen with Siegfried. Nothing in life would be free. Let's go outside, Siegfried. "Sit." I give him a treat. "Stay." I open the door and step out. "Okay." Siegfried follows. Etc.
    Push-ups: "Sit." I give a treat. "Down." Treat. "Sit." Treat.
    "Siegfried, sit." He sits. I kneel down and pet him and whisper to him.

And it worked amazingly well. Siegfried seems like a different dog already. Key, I think, is having my WalMart nail apron around my waist with potato bits for treats. Really unbelievable how important a little piece of potato is to this wonderful canine.
    And also being firm. Ignoring his prods and nibbles, moving away, approaching with my agenda. I didn't wait to be nibbled at as a sign that he might need to poop. I led him to the door and said, "Sit." Etc. Out in the back yard, he immediately ran back and forth vigorously a couple of times and pooped! (My wife told me later that he'd nibbled her already but wouldn't sit when she told him to, so she hadn't let him out. Very convenient!)
    In a single evening, it seems possible that I might become the top dog. Relative to Siegfried, at any rate, if not to my wife. Thanks, Eric!
  1. I had to look this up (although I'd heard Eric use the term once before):
    e⋅thol⋅o⋅gy  ee-thol-uh-jee, i-thol- (noun) The study of animal behavior with emphasis on the behavioral patterns that occur in natural environments.
    Origin: 1895–1900; earlier, as the study of relations between an organism and its environment < F éthologie, coined by French zoologist I. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1805–61); see ethos, -logy

Monday, September 7, 2009

Real life with Siegfried

Real life with Siegfried can be challenging for a permissive "master" who finds him too darn cute. My wife is a much more effective top dog to Siegfried than I am. To him I am more like a pack buddy with whom he plays rough and competitively, jumping up on me, gleefully ambushing me from behind or the side, kissing me with his nose or nipping at me or my T-shirt as he flies by. We'll play like that for a while, until he gets winded, then when I kneel, he'll come over and burrow his head against me for some pats and rubs. It's great.
    But it's always back to the roughhousing. And this sometimes becomes a bit much to take. I've occasionally slapped him, and while that sort of seems to help at the moment, it's of course counterproductive in the long run. But it's amazing how he seems to take the slap in stride, as though it might just be a part of the rough play—for which I'm thankful—while I'm feeling guilty over it.

Now, I'm not blaming him; I'm sure he's just taking me "at my deed," expressed by engaging in competitive play with him ever since it was apparent he incorrigibly wanted to roughhouse. As the one who's supposed to be in charge, I'm to blame. I acknowledge it. Trouble is, it really needs to stop, for my sanity and Siegfried's good too.
    Only question is: How? I sort of need to start over from zero, probably. Do I need to go to another class? Do I need to read a book? I've already read and much enjoyed Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog, a wonderful book about positive reinforcement training. It's principles seem so clear and workable. But I just don't seem to "have the status" to work with Siegfried as a trainer...or something.
    One thought I've had is to just go back into full-trainer mode, complete with treat bag and go over all of the basic stuff from class. Sit, down, stay, leave it, wait, come, etc. I can't remember the last time I wore a treat bag. I guess I'm derelict in not investing much reliance in that.
    Stay with Siegfried? At this point, stays beyond a few seconds seem absolutely, utterly out of the question and unimaginable. He can hardly stay for five seconds. I realize that this is because we haven't demanded more. We're going to have to work up to longer stays, that's for sure.
    Sofa? Siegfried already thinks he owns our sofa, jumps up there at will, even though we tried (perfunctorily, I admit) to make it a permission-only thing. He's a very assertive guy and so darn cute!
    He's habitually and ever nosing into our pockets when we're sitting down (he could probably be trained to be a very effective pickpocket).
    And, generally, he is ever on the lookout for something to occupy him, very curious (and assertive about it, too), checking out table tops, etc. for something interesting to steal.
    We have a nice, extra-big two-door crate for Siegfried, and he will actually march right into it if we show him a few potato treats and start walking toward it. (This is what Karen Pryor calls a bribe, I guess.) He trots on ahead with his wonderful show-dog gait and goes right in. He will actually "stay" comfortably in his crate for a long time, and only rarely does he object by making a racket. Maybe we can take advantage of this to bridge to stay in the proper sense.

Siegfried is almost a full-time occupation at this point. Fortunately, after he lies down for the night, he's pretty quiet until one of us gets up. Wonderful bladder and bowel control he has. For him to learn to just "turn it off" and stay for a few minutes would be wonderful. He'll often lie and nap for an hour while I'm, for example, sitting at the computer. But at other times, say right before lying down for the night, when I'd like to sit in a chair and quietly read for half an hour, he's pushing at me, nibbling my feet, etc. About all I can do (besides making sure that he doesn't need to go out to poop—seriously nibbling us seems to be his way of communicating that he "needs to go") is to shove or bribe him into his crate. (The only way to "make sure" he doesn't need to poop is to take or let him out and see whether he poops or not!)
    A credible vision of myself as top dog and Siegfried obeying me would, if I could form it, be highly motivating for me to do whatever it takes to realize it.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Recent local scenes from real life

As much as I would like to post an open letter to yesterday's correspondent, perhaps titled "What to do when...tells you you're going to hell," real life calls me to take a day off instead—that is, to get out of my mind.

Siegfried before and after grooming

Muhly grass flower

Muhlenbergia lindheimerii, Texas muhly grass

Butterfly on butterfly bush

Fuzzy worm on butterfly bush

Okra flower

Siegfried princely in Elizabethan collar

Siegfried again, at play with his "sister"

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The sadness of glad

I was surprised and more than simply glad to receive this morning an email from a close relative nearly my age, for I don't receive too many commendations. The email said:
I completely agree with what I have read so far [on your blog] and find your stuff delightful and inspiring. Don't tell my..., who would be sure to say I'm going to go to Hell. I...have been a liberal Democrat for many years. So glad I have found you! [altered to try to keep my relative's...from finding out]
    But it's sad to think that the writer and I were both in our thirties the last time we saw each other and haven't been in touch for more years than either of us has left on this green Earth. (And sad to think there are people who believe that reading my blog is sufficient reason for someone to go to Hell. Or is it being a liberal Democrat?)

My wife and I (and Siegfried) had to go over to Chapel Hill later in the morning. I was glad that Carolina's home game wouldn't start until evening. The streets of the town were still passable. Sadly, to quote a headline in the sports section of a local newspaper this morning, "It's that time of the year again." I.e., football. Intercollegiate athletics. Caravans of flag-fluttering automobiles on weekends. In fact, we saw a car with a little dark blue flag on either side on the interstate—Duke? At least it was headed for Durham and not Chapel Hill.

On the drive over, my wife told me about Cameron Todd Willingham. We're glad to know that he was an honorable man. He said he wouldn't plead guilty to avoid the death sentence because he was innocent of the fire that burned down his house in Corsicana, Texas on December 23, 19911 and killed his three young children. So the great State of Texas executed him.
    Sadly, they killed an innocent man. From an August 26 Associated Press account of the inquiry that exonerated Willingham:
Willingham's stepmother, Eugenia Willingham, called the [fire investigation] report another step in the "long, drawn-out process" of clearing his name.
    "He lived 12 years on death row," she said. "He went through hell, I'm telling you. It was probably worse than hell."
    She said her husband died in 2005, the year after his son's execution, of prostate cancer and "a broken heart."
  1. The fatal fire occurred five days before the murder at the CBS Lounge in Phoenix for which Ray Krone was wrongfully convicted and spent three years on death row before being wrongfully convicted a second time and sentenced to "life" in Arizona prisons.

Friday, September 4, 2009

America's angry "debaters"

This morning, a friend brought to my attention Newsweek's series of pictures ("of angry 'debaters'," as he said) from the recent town hall meetings ("Town Hall Face"). My friend commented, "The town halls are a true hallmark of today's American democracy: pure, direct, misinformed, and opinionated." And he asked, "Who subverted this direct form of democracy, after the indirect parliamentary form had long been chained by interest groups?"
    Well, I wonder whether part of the answer lies with the 1988 Willie Horton ad campaign against Michael Dukakis on behalf of George H. W. Bush for President. During that campaign, George W. Bush and Karl Rove received their most intense tutoring from Lee ("You gotta go negative") Atwater1 (not that Rove hadn't already learned and practiced much of the art). (I read about this in two books: Molly Ivins's and Lou Dubose's Shrub: The Short [unfortunately not short enough] but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, and Carl Cannon's Boy Genius: Karl Rove, The Architect of George W. Bush's Remarkable Political Triumphs.)
    Not to exempt Democrats, but no one among their ranks comes to mind who was or is even half as committed to going negative as Atwater and Rove were.
    And possibly Newt Gingrich's 1994 "Contract with America" might have been significantly involved. At any rate, that Congress seemed to shelter and feed hugely subversive figures like Tom DeLay. And (my friend mentioned interest groups) I don't believe that lobbyists had ever experienced anything like the golden age that began to flourish about then (despite Ike's January 17, 1961 speech about the "military-industrial complex").
    I think that the willful exploitation of certain "party bases," along with a policy that any means are okay so long as the end to be achieved is necessary surely influenced what has come to pass with respect to "America's angry 'debaters'." (For Rove and DeLay, the end was for the Republican Party to control all three branches of government, not to mention the media, to be led, of course, by Fox News [sic].)
    And when did Rush Limbaugh arise? Ah, 1988!
  1. Whether Atwater's deathbed "I'm sorry" for the Willie Horton ad was sincere or a last-minute effort to try to win eternal bliss, I guess we'll never know, unless all things get revealed to the Elect someday in heaven.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Oscar Wilde (1850-1900) still timely

The quotation below, found at Notable Quotes and represented as coming from Oscar Wilde's The Critic as Artist, certainly sounds like something Oscar Wilde might have said. Wilde could be speaking about much of what passes for journalism today, the practice of quoting "opposing sides" without objective analysis, the practice of reporting both politics and government as though they were varieties of sport, the more aggressive and emotional the blocks and jabs and feints and punts the more exciting the reportage.
There is much to be said in favour of modern journalism. By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, journalism keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

To protect health care, we need to reform it

James Surowiecki's short article about health care reform, "Status-Quo Anxiety," in the August 31 New Yorker ends with the statement, "...if we want to protect the status quo, we need to reform it." His reasons for saying this would be good for people to consider who are afraid of losing what they already have. For example:
...although people tend to feel that they own their health insurance, their entitlement is distinctly tenuous. Because it’s hard for individuals to get affordable health insurance, and most people are insured through work, keeping your insurance means keeping your job. But in today’s economy there’s obviously no guarantee that you can do that. On top of that, even if you have insurance there’s a small but meaningful chance that when you actually get sick you’ll find out that your insurance doesn’t cover what you thought it did (in the case of what’s called “rescission”). In other words, the endowment that insured people want to hold on to is much shakier than it appears. Changing the system so that individuals can get affordable health care, while banning bad behavior on the part of insurance companies, will actually make it more likely, not less, that people will get to preserve their current level of coverage.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Compassion and justice

An email discussion I've been having about health care reform with a small circle of Yale classmates recently put me in mind of something I'd read about the political philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002). I'd read, perhaps in an obituary, that he held something like
legislators should write laws without presuming what circumstances they themselves might be born into (and possibly have to suffer rather than enjoy the laws' consequences)1
which immediately struck me as being utterly consistent with Jesus's teachings on compassion (which might be characterized as the view that no one is any more, or less, deserving than the next person).

Like the next person, I enjoy "meaningful" coincidences, so I was delighted this evening to finally read something in a recent issue of The New Yorker that my wife thought I might like, James Wood's article "God in the Quad," blurbed "A don defends the Supreme Being from the new atheists":
A posthumous publication by the political philosopher John Rawls, A Brief Inquiry Into the Meaning of Sin & Faith (Harvard; $27.95), allows us to see how a very intelligent believer, who once considered the priesthood, lost his Christian faith as a young man. Rawls fought in the Army during the Second World War, and a brief memoir in the new book, written five years before his death, recounts three occurrences from that time. One day, a Lutheran pastor gave a sermon in which he claimed that God "aimed our bullets at the Japanese while God protected us from theirs." This infuriated Rawls, for whom these were simply "falsehoods about divine providence." The second event was the death of a friend in battle. The third event elapsed over several months; the dissemination of the news of what had happened in the death camps. Rawls's faith was shaken. He began to question whether prayer was possible: "How could I pray and ask God to help me, or my family, or my country, or any other cherished thing I cared about, when God would not save millions of Jews from Hitler?" To interpret history as expressing God's will, Rawls says, "God's will must accord with the most basic ideas of justice as we know them. For what else can the most basic justice be? Thus, I soon came to reject the idea of the supremacy of the divine will as also hideous and evil." [The New Yorker, August 31, 2009, p. 78]
  1. One of my classmates tells me that Rawls presents this idea in his "great book," A Theory of Justice, which is now on my reading list. He also says:
    On Rawls's argument for the appropriate original position for ensuring the impartiality of judgment when making moral decisions in Theory of Justice, see the entry in the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy, online. The gist of Rawls's argument is here. You don't have to read the book itself to understand it. [I guess I can take it off my reading list.]
    Indeed, I found there this phrasing of my "something like" above:
    The main distinguishing feature of the original position is "the veil of ignorance": to insure impartiality of judgment, the parties are deprived of all knowledge of their personal characteristics and social and historical circumstances [emphasis mine]....