Thursday, December 30, 2010

Back yard birds through a field scope

My wife received a Nikon Coolpix P100 for Christmas. One of her first photos is shown here, taken through my own Christmas present, a Nikon ED50 field scope (without benefit of a mounting device).
    Click on the photo to enlarge; click again to enlarge some more.

Religion stripped bare by the Coen Brothers

Stanley Fish’s December 27 review of Ethan and Joel Coen’s latest film (“Narrative and the Grace of God: The New ‘True Grit’”) ends with the startling observation that
The new “True Grit” is that rare thing — a truly religious movie [emphasis mine].
Of course, The Robe, The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, Jesus Christ Superstar, or The Passion of the Christ it’s not.
    In the Coen Brothers’ movie, Fish points out, “the universe seems at best indifferent, and at worst hostile.” Narrator-heroine Mattie may say the words that appear in both Charles Portis’s novel and the original film, but in the Coen Brothers’ film, “There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace” seems to say that grace’s distribution exhibits no discernible pattern.
    Fish writes:
In the novel and in the Coens’ film it is always like that: things happen, usually bad things (people are hanged, robbed, cheated, shot, knifed, bashed over the head and bitten by snakes), but they don’t have any meaning, except the meaning that you had better not expect much in this life because the brute irrationality of it all is always waiting to smack you in the face. This is what happens to Mattie at the very instant of her apparent triumph as she shoots Tom Chaney, her father’s killer, in the head. The recoil of the gun propels her backwards and she falls into a snake-infested pit. Years later, as the narrator of the novel, she recalls the moment and says: “I had forgotten about the pit behind me.” There is always a pit behind you and in front of you and to the side of you. That’s just the way it is.
    For Fish, the religiousness of the Coens’ True Grit seems to inhere in Mattie’s heroic response to the indifferent universe. She “maintains the confidence of her convictions even when the world continues to provide no support for them.” And Fish takes at face-value the “message” of the movie’s closing song: “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms”:
Oh how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way
Leaning on the everlasting arms
Oh how bright the path goes from day to day
Leaning on the everlasting arms
What have I to dread what have I to fear
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
But I heard that song as pure, wry comedy, ironic through and through, the movie’s last laugh. I can agree with Fish’s “religious” label for True Grit only if I interpret his final sentence, “In this movie [religiosity] is everything, not despite but because of its refusal to resolve or soften the dilemmas the narrative delivers up,” as extolling a heroic acceptance of the material nature of a purposeless universe.
    While not the usual sense of “religious” and “religion,” which the dictionary says “esp.” consider the universe to be ”the creation of supernatural agency or agencies,” the terms are permitted to cover simply “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe,” even if those beliefs are literally naturalistic (stripped of the supernatural) and deny purpose.
    While I’d have to accept that use of “religious” as narrowly permissible for True Grit, I wouldn’t offer it myself, any more than I’d submit to having my own views of the universe and our place in it labeled “religious.” The term’s “esp. supernatural” connotation would misrepresent what I believe.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"Wings over water" update

Moristotle: Wings over water. Sorry for the long delay, but I finally posted more photos of our November 10 visit to Pea Island on the North Carolina coast.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Belated "Merry Christmas" to Ken

Well, Ken, I'll see what I can do about a few field observations in the persona you suggested of an anthropologist from an atheistic society:
I've spent a week in a little town in North Carolina called "Mebane." Quaint place, an interesting mixture of country and shopping malls and ubiquitous brick structures labeled "churches," with reports of "church activities" everyday in the local newspaper. Already, I have to tell you, I can't read the title of the paper's "Region" section without misreading it "Religion." The people here appear to be exceedingly superstitious.
    There have been many reports of locals' hoping for something they call a "white Christmas." In fact, there's a sappy song they listen to over and over on their radios, about someone dreaming of "a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know." There's some strong nostalgia going on here, or something.
    In fact, it snowed overnight here in Mebane. Over four inches of the white stuff, and still coming down. You'd think that the locals would be happy now, but I've heard quite a bit of bitching about road conditions. Either the bitchers weren't among those dreaming of a white Christmas, or there's some ambivalence going on too. I'll have to check this out.
    Everyone I've observed greets everyone else with the phrase, "Merry Christmas." It seems to refer to yesterday, though, for today I'm hearing, "I hope you had a merry Christmas."
    Not sure what "merry" means in this context. Most people look tired and unhappy, or worried. Perhaps because of another thing the paper has been reporting, something called "shopping." The "shoppers" may be worried about what'll happen when they can't pay their credit card bills?
    It isn't clear that Christmas has anything to do with religion, but the first syllable of the term seems to refer to someone called "Christ," and some of the greeting cards I've seen refer to "keeping Christ in Christmas." Maybe he's someone (a "god" to these people, apparently) who's supposed to help people be merry? Whatever, it doesn't seem to be working.
    Apparently, the religious don't expect their gods to actually be able to do anything. They presumably take some other comfort from religion, or get something else out of it, although I have so far been unable to discern what it might be. If it's simply a code of behavior for defining who's in and who's out, it's hard to say exactly what one is supposed to be in or out of.
    Christmas is a frenzied, ironically glum time, it appears.
    But I've only studied this for a week so far.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Our holiday dinner in pictures (with some recipes)

We enjoyed a quiet, peaceful day, most of it in the kitchen and the dining room...after opening our presents, including Siegfried's:

    He liked it.
My wife's traditional holiday salad (see recipe below):
Waiting for the oven to finish cooking:
Scalloped potatoes and carrots (see recipe below):
Savory dried cranberry sauce (see recipe below):
Slices of Virginia ham from Colonial Williamsburg:
Ace brand multigrain baguette:
Wine left for drinking after cooking (see cranberry sauce recipe):
Holiday flower arrangement (from Costco):
First plate full:
[Lenox "Eternal" china]
Chocolate pecan pie (see recipe below):
Cinnamon rolls from pie dough scraps:
First piece of chocolate pecan pie:
First piece taken of chocolate pecan pie:
First piece eaten of chocolate pecan pie:
[Lenox "Holiday" china]


Brussels Sprouts in Mustard-Herb Dressing
1-¼ lbs Brussels sprouts
2 cups cherry tomatoes cut in ½ lengthwise
½ cup thinly sliced green onions
Combine for the dressing:
1 teaspoon prepared mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon dry basil
¼ teaspoon thyme leaves
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ cup red wine vinegar
1 cup salad oil

Cook Brussels sprouts: Trim off stem ends; rinse throughly; slice each in ½ lengthwise. In a 3 or 4-qt. pan, bring a large quantity of lightly salted water to boil. Add Brussels sprouts; when water returns to boiling, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 7 min. Drain.
Prepare dressing; pour it over warm Brussels sprouts. Cover and chill at least 4 hours or overnight.
Just before serving, add cherry tomatoes and green onions to the Brussels sprouts mixture; stir gently to coat vegetables with dressing. Then, using a slotted spoon, transfer the salad to a serving bowl. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Scalloped Potatoes and Carrots
2 cups thinly sliced white or red potatoes
2 cup thinly sliced carrots
2 tablespoons chipped green onions
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon seasoned salt
¼ teaspoon white pepper
2 tablespoons butter
1-¼ cups milk, scalded

Butter a 1-½-quart casserole. Layer half the potatoes, carrots, onion, flour, salt, pepper and butter in casserole; repeat with remaining ingredients. Pour scalded milk over all. Cover and bake in 350° F. oven for 1 hour. Remove cover about the last 20 minutes of baking.
    Makes 4 servings, approximately 150 calories, 4 grams protein, 9 grams fat, and 14 grams carbohydrate per serving.
Savory Dried Cranberry Sauce
¼ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup dry white wine
½ cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
½ cup dried cranberries (available at specialty foods shops)
1/8 teaspoon dried tarragon, crumbled
2 teaspoons minced fresh parsley leaves plus sprigs for garnish

In a small saucepan, whisk together the brown sugar and the cornstarch and add the wine and the broth, whisking until the mixture is smooth. Add the vinegar, the cranberries, the tarragon, and salt to taste and simmer the sauce, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Stir in the minced parsley and simmer the sauce for 1 minutes more. Serve the sauce hot, garnished with the parsley sprigs, with pork chops, ham or poultry.
Chocolate Pecan Pie with Brandied Whipped Cream
For the shell: 1 recipe pâte brisée
1-¼ cups all-purpose flour
¾ stick (6 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
2 tablespoons cold vegetable shortening
¼ teaspoon salt

For the filling
4 ounces milk chocolate, broken into pieces
1 cup light corn syrup
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
3 large eggs
1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1-½ teaspoons vanilla
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup coarsely chopped pecans
For the brandied whipped cream
1 cup well-chilled heavy cream
¼ cup confectioner's sugar
4 tablespoons brandy, or to taste

Make the shell: In a large bowl blend the flour, the butter, the vegetable shortening, and the salt until the mixture resembles meal. Add 3 tablespoons ice water, toss the mixture until the water is incorporated, and form the dough into a ball. Knead the dough lightly with the heel of the hand against a smooth surface for a few seconds to distribute the fat evenly and re-form it into a ball. Dust the dough with flour and chill it, wrapped in wax paper, for 1 hour.
    Roll out the dough 1/8 inch thick onto a floured surface and fit it into a 9-inch (1-quart) pie plate. Crimp the edge decoratively and chill the shell for 30 minutes.

Make the filling: Arrange the chocolate pieces on the bottom of the pie shell. In a bowl, whisk together the syrup, the brown sugar, the eggs, the butter, the vanilla, and the salt, whisking until the mixture is combined well, and whisk in the pecans. Pour the filling over the chocolate.

Bake the pie in the middle of a preheated 350° F. oven for 45 to 55 minutes, or until the pie is pufed and golden brown. (The filling wil not be set completely but will set thoroughly as it cools.)

Make the brandied whipped cream: In a chilled bowl with the chilled beaters of an electric mixer beat the cream with the confectioner's sugar and a pinch of salt until the mixture holds soft peaks. Add the brandy a little at a time, beating, and beat the mixture until it forms stiff peaks.

Serve the pie with the whipped cream.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Prophecy of the Medallion now available as a Kindle book

Ten days ago, Prophecy of the Medallion got a new cover. Today it got published, in Kindle format at, for only $2.99! If you don't own a Kindle, no problem—there's free software for reading it on your computer. The Prophecy of the Medallion website tells you how to obtain it.
    Says the author of the software:
If you buy the book for Kindle, the cover is black and white (until Kindle is upgraded for color). If you buy it to read using the PC apps, which I downloaded (along with the eight sample chapters), you get the color cover. The PC apps work great.
[You use the "Available on these devices" button on the Amazon site to specify what version of the book you want. And you can get free sample chapters for a book after you put it in your shopping card (but before you actually buy it).]

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Happy Yuletie

At my office's party yesterday (in the same venue as last year's), someone complimented me on my tie. Without intending to pun, I said, "It's a Yule tie." I think her smile clued me that I'd made at least a sort of almost-homophonic pun.
    Yes, it's that time of year again, and we've received six or eight cards wishing us a few things from "Merry Christmas" and "Mele Kalikimaka" to a merry "Shakespeare Lover's Christmas" [in the shape of a pointed tree]:
A Bard in a Pear Tree
Two Star-Crossed Lovers
Three Friends, Romans, and Countrymen
Ten Lords a-Leaping
Eleven Ghosts a-Haunting
Twelfth Night Deceptions
[–from Allport Editions, Portland, Oregon])
    Even the unusual Shakespeare lover's Christmas card came in second, though, to a card whose commercial message is the generic "Happy Holidays" but whose personal note provokes serious thought:
Is it possible to request a blog entry, perhaps as a Christmas present to me? Imagine that you're an anthropologist from an atheistic society. You know nothing about Christmas. The blog entry is the field journal in which you record your observations.
    All I will tell Ken at this point is that I'm collecting notes in my field journal. (12/26: The field journal entry has been published.)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Pray more, prey less?

There was a break-in this week not far from where I live. The thieves took a TV and a gun and a few other things. Sentiments expressed over the burglary included sadness that some people prey on others and prayerfulness that the thieves will be caught and punished.

At our department luncheon on Monday, while waiting for our pasta to be brought by the single waiter serving our table of twenty-eight university staffers, someone wondered aloud at how much Legos had evolved. "So many more options for my grandchildren than I had."
    "I had Lincoln Logs," another luncheoner chimed in.
    I had to smile, imagining them and me playing with toys fifty, sixty years ago, and more. "I had clods," I said, barely able to suppress a laugh.
    "Clods?" the Lego guy asked.
    "Clods. Hard lumps of clayey earth." I could no longer suppress my laughter. I was remembering an incident when I was four or five. "My cousin DeWayne and his parents came over when I was taking a nap. I never knew they were there. But when I woke up and pulled out my box of clods from under the bed, a lot of them were broken or smashed. Loose dirt covered the bottom of the box. I was chagrined."
    "Is that what they mean by dirt poor?" the Lego guy said.
    "I guess," I said. "I said, 'DeWayne, you'll never play with my clods again!'"

Years later, I guess it was in 2004, before the national election, I got an email from DeWayne. It was sent to about twenty-five people, mostly friends of him and his wife, I learned later. His wife probably sent it, actually. The email reminded us to pray for President Bush and let God tell us whom to vote for.
    I resented this sanctimonious, wrong-headed admonition so much that I replied to say so, copying everyone on the distribution list, just so they'd all know that I wasn't a member of that crowd.
    Right, pray for Bush, the do-good predator, presuming to bring the God of Freedom to the Middle East, where the God of Complete and Utter Submission to the Will of Allah prevails.
    This time it was DeWayne, or rather his wife, who said she wasn't going to play with me anymore. She blocked email from me, and I haven't heard from DeWayne since.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Prophecy of the Medallion: New cover

"Prophecy of the Medallion has a new cover. Thanks to Moristotle. He’s not a professional graphic artist, but his work is outstanding and...."

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Protecting and defending the rights of women

From the back matter of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's 2010 memoir, Nomad: From Islam to America:
The Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation was set up in 20081 as a charitable organization to help protect and defend the rights of women in the West, especially in the United States, against militant2 Islam and harmful tribal customs. Its aim is to investigate, inform, and influence against several types of crimes against women, including the denial of education for girls, genital mutilation, forced marriage, honor violence, and restrictions on girls' freedom of movement.
    The AHA Foundation seeks to raise awareness in America that some of these violent practices against women are increasingly carried out in the United States. The foundation also exists to provide girls and women in distress with information and assistance, by creating a database of people and institutions qualified to deal with cases of maltreatment and abuse. [p. 275]
  1. The AHA Foundation website gives 2007 as the year of foundation.
  2. The use of "militant" here might be an attempt by the AHA Foundation to avoid the appearance of indicting Islam generally, but the tenor of Ms. Hirsi Ali's writings is that Islam generally promulgates values detrimental to women and personal freedom, due primarily to Islam's teaching that the Quran rules in all matters and that "Allah's laws" (including laws based on the practice of the Prophet Muhammad, who she said, "measured by our western standards, [was] a pervert") override all man-made laws. In other words, Islam, her writings seem to assert, is essentially totalitarian and therefore inimical to democracy, which would seem to raise some provocative questions about "freedom of religion" in America when it comes to Islam.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

With respect to reflective belief

The second verse of Genesis puts being "in the same boat" in a mythically dramatic context; we're all "Afloat on the face of the deep."
    But I like to distinguish between people who come to believe in God in order to feel better about suffering and injustice (or to lessen their anxiety about dying1) and people who believe but don't think much about it, believing simply because they have been indoctrinated to do so (even possibly by rote, as in the case of Muslims as portrayed by Ayaan Hirsi Ali2).
    Most people who "believe" may do so from indoctrination. Remember, as Bertrand Russell pointed out in one of the essays in Why I Am Not a Christian, most people who are religious, are religious because they were taught to be so as children, and Muslims who as children could have been raised to be Christians instead would now be Christians rather than Muslims, and vice versa. (The few exceptions might be those who reflect. And some of those become atheists rather than switch religions.)

If I'm in the same boat as believers, I want it to be with believers who are aware of, and troubled by, suffering and injustice, not with people whose "belief" is essentially merely sentimental and unreflective. I can't say that I feel much compassion for the latter folks, or even much respect.
    And of course I condemn those among them who, in the face of reason and morality, take their "holy books" at their word and out gay people, murder physicians who perform abortions, say "bring it on" to Armageddon, behead unbelievers, stone to death women branded immoral for having been raped, murder daughters for "dishonoring" their families, beat "disobedient" wives, rape sexually unwilling ones3, go into marketplaces with a bomb strapped about their chest, fly airplanes into buildings, etc.
  1. I'm thinking of Tillich's characterization of existential anxiety as a person's awareness of his possible non-being.
  2. From Nomad, p. 20:
    Sahra [her half-sister who has lived in England for years but still wears "the jilbab, a long black robe that covers your hair and all your body past your ankles and wrists, but not your face"] may choose to enroll Sagal in a Muslim school, where she will be isolated from the values that underlie success in Britain. Most of her fellow students will come from homes where English is a second language. Some of her teachers will have been selected more for their piety than their ability as educators, others for their willingness to cooperate with the norms of the Muslim school. Some teachers will have applied out of a strong sense of idealism; others will have been motivated by a combination of some or all of these factors. Education will be by rote learning and submission, not inquiry and an open mind. [emphasis mine]
  3. All of these Islamic crimes against women are documented in Hirsi Ali's 2006 book, The Caged Virgin.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Mebane's first snow of coming winter

Afloat on the face of the deep

Writing yesterday's essay led me to the realization that, in a fundamental sense, believer and non-believer are in the same boat, their only essential difference being the paddle they use to stay afloat.
    "The long, distant cry" didn't initially end with "In my own way, I too am troubled by all this suffering. Its mewing and keening continually haunt my hearing." I added that paragraph (and continued to revise it) after realizing that my continual awareness of suffering and its profound unfairness seems to amount to my being one of those "troubled people" my friend referred to. I have to admit that for some time I have been aware of a sense of underlying existential pathos. A dissonant chord continually troubles the melodic line of my life and disturbs its harmony.
    And who can say that Castaneda was free of existential anxiety1 even when that "normal" photograph2 was made?

One person's response to suffering and injustice is to believe that God exists and will put it all right. And he prays continually that it be so. Amen, he says.
    Put it all right. That is, something is wrong for the believer too. For him too it's a dog eat dog world. He feels the world's suffering and is appalled and unsettled by it. He seeks an antidote for it (or for the fact of his own future annihilation) through believing that suffering (or his coming annihilation) is just an illusion or, if not an illusion, will nevertheless be righted in the hereafter.
    Yes, something is wrong, and the believer too is troubled and suffers, however able he usually is to plug his ears against the tragic discord that would otherwise trouble the harmony of his life too.

I want to remember this. I want to remember compassion for those who stoutly resist giving up the palliative paddle labeled "God." For I seem to have been clutching a sort of paddle myself. Rather than pray and shout amen, I beat the waters and decry. And my song lately has only repeated slight variations of the same lament.
  1. From Wikipedia's entry on existential anxiety:
    The theologian Paul Tillich characterized existential anxiety as "the state in which a being is aware of its possible nonbeing" and he listed three categories for the nonbeing and resulting anxiety: ontic (fate and death), moral (guilt and condemnation), and spiritual (emptiness and meaninglessness). According to Tillich, the last of these three types of existential anxiety, i.e. spiritual anxiety, is predominant in modern times while the others were predominant in earlier periods. Tillich argues that this anxiety can be accepted as part of the human condition or it can be resisted but with negative consequences. In its pathological form, spiritual anxiety may tend to "drive the person toward the creation of certitude in systems of meaning which are supported by tradition and authority" even though such "undoubted certitude is not built on the rock of reality."
  2. My friend who read my paper on mentoring had said, "Carlos Castaneda's picture looks normal. Why did Thom Green say that he looked troubled?"

Friday, December 3, 2010

The long, distant cry

I have to admit, finally, that I've been continually fussing at something.
    Early this week I showed a friend something I published about twenty years ago, "The Mentor's Apprentice," about the way I went about mentoring technical writers. I was reminded how I'd come to title the paper.
    I asked my friend whether she'd ever heard of Carlos Castaneda. He wrote a number of books about a Yaqui Indian shaman whose apprentice he claimed to have become, and I think he used the phrase, "sorcerer's apprentice." (But, come to think of it, so did Walt Disney.)
    At any rate, I was thinking of Castaneda when I titled my paper. (Or my muse was thinking of him.)
    Castaneda was a student at UCLA in the sixties, and so was my old friend Thom Green (1937-2002). Thom told me many years ago that he once saw Castaneda in the graduate reading room. Thom said he looked deeply troubled, haunted.
    My friend who read my paper on mentoring said, "Carlos Castaneda's picture looks normal. Why did Thom Green say that he looked troubled?"
    I told her, "Remember, our spirits change from moment to moment. Castaneda would probably not have sat for an official photograph (such as that used in the Wikipedia article) when he was troubled. At the moment Thom Green sighted Castaneda in the reading room, he thought that Castaneda looked distracted and under intense internal pressure."
    "You're right, Morris. Our mood and spirit can change from moment to moment. It's harder for some people than others to maintain a normal or good mood and stay stable. I feel sorry for those who are troubled by things, people, thoughts, treatments...."

And then I started to itch.
    I told her that, yes, I feel sorry, too, for all the poor creatures of the Earth who, while they might not be eaten by a predator higher on the food chain, nevertheless have an unhappy life with much trouble and woe. The fact of all of this suffering is, to me, the primary "proof" that God does not exist. No God we'd want to imagine would create such a dog eat dog world1. No morally upright, self-respecting human being ever would, at any rate.
    In my own way, I too am troubled by all this suffering. Its mewing and keening continually haunt my hearing.
  1. From Wiktionary: "canis canem edit [Latin], 'dog eats dog,' refers to a situation where nobody is safe from anybody, each man for himself."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

George W. Bush remains certain

On June 2, 2006, I wrote to the president of Yale University:
I believe that Bush was so far from deserving the [honorary] degree [that Yale conferred on him at the 2001 commencement] that in the years to come Yale alumni familiar with Bush’s “accomplishments” will be as amazed as I was chagrined and embarrassed that in the year 2001 our alma mater conferred such an honor on such a man.
President Lewin didn't contradict that assessment1.

And neither, apparently, does George W. Bush himself, if his recent book is any evidence. I of course haven't read Decision Points, but my wife had told me, "There's a review of Bush's book in The New Yorker, I think you need to read it." She added, "The review, not the book."
    I said, "I understood what you meant."
    She said, "I would never read anything by that man. But I think you'll like the review."
    The review is "Dead Certain," by George Packer. He writes:
What's remarkable about Decision Points is how frequently and casually it leaves out facts, large and small, whose absence draws more attention than their inclusion would have. In his account of the 2000 election, Bush neglects to mention that he lost the popular vote. He refers to the firing, in 2002, of his top economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey, but not to the fact that it came immediately after Lindsey violated the Administration's optimistic line by saying that the Iraq war could cost as much as two hundred billion dollars....
Packer says "what's remarkable" as though there's nothing else remarkable about Decision Points, but I attribute that to a momentary lapse by both the writer and his editor at The New Yorker. There's at least one thing even more remarkable than that:
The structure of Decision Points, with each chapter centered on a key issue...reveals the essential qualities of the Decider. There are hardly any decision points at all....
    In Bush's telling, the non-decision decision is a constant feature of his Presidential policymaking....
    ...Bush immediately caricatured opposing views and impugned the motives of those who held them. If there was an honest and legitimate argument on the other side, then the President would have to defend his non-decision, taking it out of the redoubt of personal belief and into the messy empirical realm of contingency and uncertainty. So critics of his stem-cell ban are dismissed as scientists eager for more government cash, or advocacy groups looking to "raise large amounts of money," or Democrats who saw "a political winner."
    Bush ends Decision Points with the sanguine thought that history's verdict on his Presidency will come only after his death. During his years in office, two wars turned into needless disasters, and the freedom agenda created such deep cynicism around the world that the word itself was spoiled. In America, the gap between the rich few and the vast majority widened dramatically, contributing to a historic financial crisis and an ongoing recession; the poisoning of the atmosphere continued unabated; and the Constitution had less and less say over the exercise of executive power. Whatever the judgments of historians, these will remain foregone conclusions.
I probably didn't "need" to read the review, but at least it served to remind me that I should be grateful that George W. Bush's uncritical evangelism played a helpful role in the progress of my thought from uncertainly theistic to confidently atheistic.
  1. Of course, in President Lewin's need not to offend anyone who might donate money to Yale, he didn't indicate whether he agreed or didn't agree with my assessment of Bush.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Je n'accuse pas

About a third of the way through Ayaan Hirsi Ali's 2006 "emancipation proclamation for women and Islam," The Caged Virgin, I came upon her statement that she "denounces God." Earlier in the book she has said she is an atheist (which, by the way, in the context of her having formerly been a devout Muslim renders her subject to the death penalty). But denounces God? How are we to understand that?
    Perhaps she means, If God exists (which she has said she doesn't believe), then she would denounce him as evil (by virtue, for example—according to the Quran—of his having relegated women to the status of slaves of men?). If she doesn't mean to say it with some such qualification, then she seems to be contradicting herself.
    From her point of view (and from mine), the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers were superior morally to the God portrayed in the holy books of the Abrahamic religions. I think that's where her denouncement is probably coming from. It's a moral denouncement.
    I gather from reading Hirsi Ali's memoirs that she has directly experienced much, much more religious evil than I have (being forcibly circumcised, being subject to rote indoctrination in the Quran by a young teacher who refused to explain what the words meant but resorted to banging her head against a wall to force her to "learn," being given by her father in marriage to a man she disliked, being threatened with execution—in a handwritten note pinned with a knife to the chest of her murdered colleague...), but I haven't seen any reference in her writings to the food chain, which, to me, is a more fundamental evil for not requiring the complicity of human consciousness. After all, on my view, God had nothing to do with the penning of the Bible or the Quran; they're purely human (and essentially male) artifacts.

And yet, I am not ready to join Hirsi Ali in denouncing God if "he" exists. I think I may be more into accepting and suffering a world that simply is and only has a moral dimension because consciousness evolved from material chaos.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A pregnant pause on Thanksgiving

We went down the street yesterday for Thanksgiving dinner with friends. I wondered about the awkward pause before someone took up knife and fork and started eating. Afterwards, Bill told us, "I almost said grace, just to see how Morris would react. But I decided it would be too awkward to say it with an eye cocked open to see whether he bowed his head or at least closed his eyes. Of course, I didn't expect that I'd see him moving his lips."
    We all laughed. But of course I was wondering in what manner Bill might have "said grace," whether it would have been sham or sincere. His ambivalence when we've talked has left me unsure whether he believes or not, has made me wonder whether he may be superstitious, reluctant to hazard provoking a god of whom he's not entirely sure he can say he doesn't exist.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thankful that not yet

A main thing I'm thankful for today is that there hasn't (yet) been another successful act of Islamic terrorism on American soil. Unfortunately, we have to qualify it with that "yet," for, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes in her latest book, Nomad: From Islam to America, A Personal Journey through the Clash of Civilizations:
The uncritical Muslim attitude toward the Quran urgently needs to change, for it is a direct threat to world peace. Today 1.57 billion people identify themselves as Muslims. Although they certainly have 1.57 billion different minds, they share a dominant cultural trend: the Muslim mind today seems to be in the grip of jihad. A nebula of movements with al Qaeda-like approaches to Islamic precepts has enmeshed itself in small and large ways into many parts of Muslim community life, including in the West. They spread a creed of violence, mobilizing people on the basis that their identity, which rests in Islam, is under attack. [p. 205]
While I grant that the West has provoked the Islamic world in a number a ways, including support for the creation of Israel ("seen in the Muslim world as theft and arrogance," according to my friend Ken—himself culturally a Jew), and also grant that, "when they are ready to discuss their grievances at a political forum, we need to listen and be fair" (as Ken recommends), we must not overlook the menace of the jihadist worldview itself, of which Hirsi Ali paints a much more detailed, starker picture in her 2006 book, The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Theological space [is empty]

I often fall to musing while doing household or personal chores. Like cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, or bathing in the morning. This morning (or perhaps it was last night), I fell to contemplating the billions of hours that human beings have spent theologizing. If God doesn't exist (which I believe "he" doesn't), how could intelligent beings waste so much time that way?
    As often (if not invariably) happens when I muse, an idea came to me, prompted by musing's tendency to pose questions and thereby invoke the principle, Ask and ye shall receive.
    The idea provided by my muse (so to speak) was that humans have also spent billions of hours contemplating mathematics, or what might be called "logical space." Well, inventive minds can also posit theological entities (gods, angels, devils, sins, etc.) and amuse (or torture) themselves for hours puzzling over their conceptual implications. And they have.
    But, though mathematical entities (numbers, for example) don't exist in the way atoms and avalanches and alligators do, they have proven themselves in all sorts of theoretical and practical applications (science, economics, technology, everyday commerce).
    God hasn't.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

We didn't wear Prada

Alas that I am not myself pictured in the accompanying photograph. I might well have been. For when I was about the age of these youngstersr, I too wore clothes made from flour sacks. My mother made them. She also made herself dresses from flour sacks.
    A girl cousin (now in her seventies) recently sent me the photograph, along with some verse, which I have edited a bit so as not to embarrass Moristotle unduly (with apologies to the original author, said to be Colleen B. Hubert):
In that long ago time when things were saved,
When roads were graveled and barrels were staved,
When worn-out clothing were used as rags,
And there wasn't any plastic wrap or bags,
And the well and the pump were way out back,
A versatile item to have was the flour sack.
Well, actually, I think that's quite enough of that (without including the other eight or ten verses).

My cousin wrote (or maybe it was Colleen):
All these girls' dresses were made from flour sacks...
    Panties were made from them too.
    The boys’ shirts and underwear were made from flour sacks or feed sacks also.
I don't remember any flour sack underwear myself.

Monday, November 22, 2010

"Most Americans still don't understand..."

It keeps getting scarier. In Paul Krugman's column ("There Will Be Blood"), today in The New York Times, he writes that
one of our two great political parties has made it clear that it has no interest in making America governable, unless it’s doing the governing. And that party now controls one house of Congress, which means that the country will not, in fact, be governable without that party’s cooperation — cooperation that won’t be forthcoming.
    Right now, in particular, Republicans are blocking an extension of unemployment benefits—an action that will both cause immense hardship and drain purchasing power from an already sputtering economy. But there’s no point appealing to the better angels of their nature; America just doesn’t work that way anymore.
    These days, national security experts are tearing their hair out over the decision of Senate Republicans to block a desperately needed new strategic arms treaty. And everyone knows that these Republicans oppose the treaty, not because of legitimate objections, but simply because it’s an Obama administration initiative; if sabotaging the president endangers the nation, so be it.
    My sense is that most Americans still don’t understand this reality. They still imagine that when push comes to shove, our politicians will come together to do what’s necessary. But that was another country.
While it's morally uplifting to have a nice, conciliatory, bipartisan president, one wishes (too late) that Mr. Obama had been more effective over the past two years in keeping the opposition in check. One imagines that if he had done a better job in that regard, the Republican Party might not have been able to gain control of the House of Representatives in the recent election. Now our President's opportunities to "be effective" have been sharply curtailed.

The Portable Atheist concludes

The 47th "essential reading for the nonbeliever" included in Christopher Hitchens's Portable Atheist is Ayaan Hirsi Ali's "specifically written essay on her decision to say farewell to all gods." And the following paragraphs are its (and the whole book's) concluding ones:
Now I told myself that we, as human individuals, are our own guides to good and evil. We must think for ourselves; we are responsible for our own morality. I arrived at the conclusion that I couldn't be honest with others unless I was honest with myself. I wanted to comply with the goals of religion—which are to be a better and more generous person—without suppressing my will and forcing it to obey an intricate and inhumanly detailed web of rules. I had lied many times in my life, but now, I told myself, that was over: I had had enough of lying.
    After I wrote my memoir, Infidel (published in the United States in 2007), I did a book tour in the United States. I found that interviewers from the Heartland often asked if I had considered adopting the message of Jesus Christ. The idea seems to be that I should shop for a better, more humane religion than Islam, rather than taking refuge in unbelief. A religion of talking serpents and heavenly gardens? I usually respond that I suffer from hayfever. The Christian take on Hellfire seems less dramatic than the Muslim version, which I grew up with, but Christian magical thinking appeals to me no more than my grandmother's angels and djins.
    The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more. [pp. 479-480]
The point, though, is that, however much we might want more, we are not going to get it. An individual's project in facing la condition humain is as it has always been: Deal with it.
    I started to say that to deny the "nothing more" aspect of it (as religious indoctrination routinely programs children to do) is not to deal with it, but to avoid it. While in a purely semantic sense that is so, people "deal with" all sorts of things by simply avoiding them. If we aren't equipped to face up to something (and it takes a lot to be able to face up to the fact that we and all of our friends and relatives are going to die), what are we going to do? Many people party as much as possible—the "eat, drink, and be merry" approach...And others take shelter in the comforting myths of religion.
    Critical questioners like Ayaan Hirsi Ali find that they can't square that avoidance with the dicates of conscience and mental health.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Read it!

I hope that yesterday's post sufficed to send you to Hal Crowther's essay on the November 2 election ("Gone Missing: The Country's Conscience, Brain, and Heart," in The Independent). It's that prescient. All thoughtful citizens owe it to themselves to read it, and we should be thankful that we have a few fellow citizens like Crowther, who I believe lives only a few miles from me, over in Hillsborough.
    In case you need to sample some more of his essay before deciding to read the whole thing:
...Though the troglodyte triumvirate of [Rush] Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity is paid $114 million annually to seduce the subliterate multitudes—for nine hours daily on Fox Radio—the usual lavish smorgasbord of reactionary bile and gibberish was deemed insufficient for 2010. Unleashed by a Supreme Court majority who ruled that corporate campaign spending, even anonymous spending, was the exact equivalent of First Amendment free speech, those dark forces "outside" the political system reached deep into their well-lined pockets and spent nearly half a billion dollars, a quarter of it from "undisclosed" sources, to underwrite attack ads and steer a staggering, half-bankrupt nation to the right.
    ...Shrinking or neutering the government never helped anyone with a net worth less than eight figures. You can sell almost anything in America but common sense. This country is notorious, and unique, for all its poor people who want to keep wealth unchained, just in case they should acquire some.
    ...It may be that voters below a certain level of ratiocination, their logical faculties permanently maimed by reality TV and video games, are no longer able to resist the kind of attack ads that came at them in a $4 billion tidal wave. The big corporate contributors wouldn't fund this operation so generously if they weren't confident of a handsome return. Never in human history has so much cash and so much expertise been devoted to what would once have been called mind control, or brainwashing, and is now called free speech. [emphasis mine1] There's no apparent limit to what the right-wing coalition can spend, or will spend, to bring out the worst in Americans.
To paraphrase what many people have said with reference to Strunk & White's Elements of Style2, read Crowther's essay!
  1. George Orwell must be turning over in his grave. I'm thinking of his "Newspeak," from Nineteen Eighty-Four (which was only ten years before the election of 1994, with which this series of posts on Hal Crowther's writings began).
  2. "Read the little book!"

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Worse than 1994

Moristotle's previous post ("November 2, 2010: 1994 all over again") excerpted Hal Crowther's 1994 article that The Independent had reprinted recently because of its aptness to both the 1994 and 2010 elections. When I mentioned Crowther's article on Facebook, my friend Ken commented that
Today's problems are a lot more dire than [those of] 1994. The "cheap entertainment" that the D's and R's are treating us to is costing us dearly.
    In a democracy, you get the government you deserve. Ultimately, the ignorance of the ...electorate is the problem.
Well, now The Independent has published Crowther specifically on our recent election ("Gone Missing: The Country's Conscience, Brain, and Heart "), and he seems to agree with Ken:
The midterms...mark the most successful manipulation of the gullible by the cynical that this deceitful republic has yet witnessed. Billionaires and "undisclosed" corporate donors poured kings' ransoms into relentless attack ads against vulnerable Democrats. Right-wing broadcasters circulated myths and lies that would have made Joseph Goebbels blush, and every racist and xenophobic impulse threatening to a nonwhite president was exploited without apology. The secret money served it up, and the logic-impaired tea party irregulars swallowed the poisoned bait with relish. The net result of the vaunted populist rebellion of 2010 was a sharp turn toward corporate feudalism, as the House of Representatives and many state legislatures and governor's mansions reverted to a rudderless but ruthless Republican Party that has never been less deserving of another chance.
    ...America will survive this election. It will not, in the long run, survive what the voting revealed about our political system.
    We've finally achieved institutional incoherence....
    ...[T]here was nothing much in this election cycle to inspire confidence in the American electorate or the candidates it produces and elects. And far less to inspire confidence in the media that egged them on, and not coincidentally milked them and their "undisclosed" cash cows for several billion dollars in venomous, repetitive, content-free attack ads.
    The one way the media blitz swayed me was to change my stance on immigration. Though easygoing Australians have always been among my favorite national types, in the future I vote to keep them out of America. If we could have stopped just one Aussie, Rupert Murdoch, from achieving naturalization, what a much kinder, cleaner, smarter nation we would be. If Rush Limbaugh deserved a lion's share of the credit for getting out the Neanderthal vote in 1994, we can thank Murdoch's Fox News and Fox Radio, the boiler rooms of neo-fascist reaction, for the triumphant return of the American knuckle-dragger in 2010.
Whew! I think that Crowther more than agrees with Ken. And more than agrees with me, too, when I commented to Ken on Facebook that
it may be even worse than you say, for even if the electorate could magically become informed and wise, the money system Senator Mitchell mentioned back in 1994 has become even more entrenched and would hinder [I should have said prevent] the electorate's exercising their new-found smarts. Of course, no such magical transformation is going to take place anyway. Ironically, the electorate's predilection for magical thinking more or less ensures that.
I haven't defined "magical thinking" lately, although I use the term frequently. Magical thinking, which has an entry in Wikipedia, is not a precise term. It has different senses depending on context and theorist. Rather than attempt to define it, I'll give some examples. The voodoo belief that a practitioner can cause someone pain by sticking pins in an effigy of the person is magical thinking. Thinking that a prayer or ritual can prevent a plane from crashing, a child from dying, a nation from declining (or anything else from happening) is magical thinking. I joke that as long as I own books I haven't read yet I won't die; that would be magical thinking if I actually believed it.
    I recently gave an example of political magical thinking: the belief that whoever you voted for this time will be able to fix things. In a very general sense, it's magical thinking to suppose (or wish) a causal connection between one thing and another without any evidence that there is such a connection.
    According to The Skeptic's Dictionary:
Dr. Phillips Stevens Jr. [writes that] "the vast majority of the world's peoples...believe that there are real connections between the symbol and its referent, and that some real and potentially measurable power flows between them." He believes there is a neurobiological basis for this, though the specific content of any symbol is culturally determined.
Cleaning up after breakfast this morning, I felt a sense of the miraculous (or the providential) that I should be privileged to live (and to have lived for almost sixty-eight years now) when children die young (of defect, disease, starvation, accident, mayhem), when one of the almost always two young Nazca booby hatchlings is pushed out of the nest by its older sibling ("It always dies," said the narrator of the BBC program about Galapágos), etc., etc., etc., to the countless gazillions of blameless creatures on the Planet Earth who don't enjoy a long, full life.
    I suspect that Dr. Stevens's "neurobiological basis" promotes a connection between such a sense and whatever can easily explain it. Only, Loving God's somehow protecting me (or the older Nazca booby hatchling) doesn't explain it. In fact, to me, the fact of all those unfair deaths rather testifies to the contrary. That's using critical thought to break the neurobiological tendency to establish a magical connection.

Crowther concludes:
Where's the country's conscience? Where's its heart? Where's its brain?
I think it's in its knee, which jerks predictably at the slightest magical provocation.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

November 2, 2010: 1994 all over again

In November 1994, Hal Crowther published in The Independent an article about that month's national election. Our current month's election seemed so similar to 1994's that last week, The Independent reprinted Crowther's article last week, under the title "We've seen this movie before: 1994 revisited." Some excerpts:
I remember my first editor laughing at me because I seemed to require logic in my politics. But can you deliberately block your opponent from achieving anything, then ask the voters to sack him for his lack of achievement?....
    The stuff that animates rightwingers in my part of the world is so inchoate and simplistic you couldn't accurately call it ideology. My guess is that neither ideology nor widespread misery derailed the Democrats...Throwing out some of the best politicians along with some of the most expendable was a voter's irrational reaction to a profoundly irrational system.
    The one thing in this country that's indisputably wretched is the way we conduct our politics, and the way we govern ourselves as a consequence of those politics.
    "Every Senator who participates in it knows this system stinks," says the [in 1994] retiring Senate majority leader, George Mitchell. "What matters most in seeking public office is not integrity, not ability, not judgment, not responsibility, not experience, not intelligence, but money...Money dominates this system. Money infuses this system. Money is the system."
    "We think the diametrically opposed party system is an absurd joke," one college student told The Washington Post [in 1994]. "We're just watching the whole American experiment and wondering 'Can this go on?'"
    Do Americans grow dumber as they grow older, through some insidious process that probably involves television? Is there intelligent life after 30? Trust the young people. If the two-party system isn't dead already, it smells pretty funny to me. Resisting even the most basic campaign reforms, perpetually posturing and positioning themselves for elections years away, the Democrats and Republicans have reduced democracy to a rowdy, childish tug-of-war that provides almost nothing but expensive entertainment.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Some questions for Pastor Ullage

Pastor Ullage, thanks for providing a summary of your sermon on P.U.S.H.: Pray Until Something Happens.  I'd like to follow up with a few questions, if I may:
  1. Why didn't you count your wife's coming into your study as "something happening"? I mean, her leaving seemed to qualify, so why not her arriving? Aren't you being awfully selective in what counts as a happening?
  2. When she was sitting there not interrupting your praying, what were you praying about (or for)? Your billboard didn't have room for you to specify what, if anything in particular, we should pray about while waiting for "something" to happen, but I can be forgiven for expecting your sermon to address this.
  3. Actually, your "Amen!," immediately following the information that "she got up and left the room," rather suggests that you were praying for her to leave. Is that what you were praying for?
  4. In connection with Question 1, was the reason you didn't count your wife's coming in perhaps because you weren't praying for that to happen?
  5. With regard to that, apparently not much is happening in your relationship with your wife. Would you care to comment on that?
  6. Do you do marital counseling as well as prayer counseling? Which do you figure you're more competent to do, if not equally competent in both?
  7. When something happens that you weren't praying for, is that because someone else was praying for it, or do some things happen without anybody's praying? How is that possible?  

Friday, November 12, 2010

Pastor Ullage's signature homily

Brethren, I say unto you, God hears and answers prayer. Nothing happening in your life? God can make it happen.
    God can make it happen. Let me hear it back!
    God can make it happen!
    Amen! God can make it happen. And you can pray to make it happen! When nothing's happening in your life, PUSH! Puh-ray until something happens!
    Puh-ray until something happens!
    God can make it happen!
    Amen. Just this morning, Brothers and Sisters, I was in my study, and nothing was happening. So I prayed. And I prayed. And I kept on apraying. And I prayed some more.
    And my wife opened the door and came in. She sat down and kept quiet. She knows not to interrupt me when I'm praying to God. And she sat, and she waited. And she waited some more, until finally....
    She got up and left the room. Amen!
    Something happened.
    God answers prayer!
    And I got the idea for today's sermon. Pray Until Something Happens, Brethren. When nothing is happening in your life, God can make it happen. And you can make it happen through prayer.
    Turn in the hymnal now to Push Through to the Promise Land....
October 10 Word of the Day from ullage: –noun 1. the amount by which the contents fall short of filling a container, as a cask or bottle....

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Morning on the Carolina coast

Actually, the photograph was taken on November 10, on Pea Island, at about 7:15 a.m., just before my wife and I were met by our guides for a personal walking tour around the lake at this winter wildlife refuge.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wings over water

At Pea Island, dateline today (White Egret):

Added December 29th, after I finally incorporated the names of birds as identified to me by guide Audrey Whitlock, to whom much thanks, as well as thanks for her and Peggy Eubanks's companionship and guidance that day:

Black-bellied Plover in winter plumage:

Brown Pelicans:

Yellow-rumped Warbler (used to be called Myrtle Warbler):

Great Egret:

Pied-billed Grebe:

White Pelicans with two Great Black-backed Gulls:

Belted Kingfisher:


American Coot:


More Pelicans:


More Egrets:

The birdwatchers: