Beta Culture: Being Grownups on Planet Earth

Cowboy DadFor most of the years I knew him, I unconsciously thought of my Cowboy Dad as “the grownup” in my life. Since he died, I’ve realized there were several side-effects of thinking that. One is that I cheated him out of all the years of ME being a grownup, so that we could be … well, friendly equals, fellow MEN together. The other is that I cheated myself out of all those years of me being a grownup. All the endeavors and relationships in my life were approached in some degree of a childish/childlike manner.

None of this was conscious, or by decision. It was something that simply appeared in my attitudes and behavior. If I had stated it in words, it would’ve come out to something like “It’s safe for me to be childish. I can be irresponsible. I can drift, I can put off critical decisions. I can party, I can laze around and not think about my present situation, or my future. If I screw up, he will rescue me. I can safely not worry too much about the people around me, or the larger world, because the Old Man is handling all that.”

I think a lot about religion and the effects it has on people and cultures, and I think my experience of “relating to the grownup as a child” is directly applicable to the experience of people in religion. I doubt we can imagine how much we’ve lost, how much Planet Earth has lost, by us feeling free to not be conscious adults.

In my case, I can’t place the entire blame on myself. I came into our relationship fairly  broken, and I needed the comfort and guidance, the there-for-you-ness, a real parent could provide. But that doesn’t mean the results were any less real, any less damaging.

In the case of we humans, I suppose I can’t place the entire blame there, either. As a species, we grew up without parents or wise guidance of any sort. We stumbled along figuring out things as we went, repeatedly falling back into mistakes and breaking ourselves and the world around us.

But the cost has been incalculable, and it’s something we – and our planet – can’t afford anymore.

A month or so after my Dad died, I woke up one day to the realization “Oh gosh, I have to be a grownup now.” It was a little bit scary, but mostly it was … strength. Determination. A little bit of steel injected into my being with the understanding that I could handle whatever happened, because that’s what grownups do. I understood that I had to relate to my own life and the world around me in an entirely new, entirely responsible way. And I was truly okay with that.

For any individual recovering from religion, I have to believe you have that same epiphany. After your god “dies,” you realize you have to be an adult. You have to deal with the reality of your own life, and the lives of those close to you, and even larger matters out in the world around you. But you also understand that you CAN. You — along with others like you — take each situation into your hands and change it for the better. Or you accept the fact of a bad situation and deal realistically with its cost. Because that’s what grownups do.

As an entire civilization, we’re nowhere near the point of waking up as grownups. Our world full of contentedly religious, drunkenly mystical, calmly unconcerned juveniles is this hapless, directionless child, fumbling around and breaking things, breaking each other and the world we live in, and thinking it’s all okay, because our Parent is dealing with all the hard stuff and picking up the clutter of each destructive act.

I think even most atheists inherit this mindset, and fail to notice they have it. We grow up in the culture that thinks this way, and it’s so deeply embedded we never get around to seeing it, or peeling it out of our own heads.

To all those soft-serve atheists who think we should just live and let live, that atheism will grow or not as events develop, and that meanwhile it’s all good …

I think you have no idea how deadly dangerous is the situation we live within. No idea how damaging it is to let people continue to believe in gods, and stay children. No idea what we’ve DONE, and continue to do, and will soon do.

It’s why I’m not just an atheist, but an anti-theist.

In the same way you have to cure disease in order to be well, we have to cure ourselves of religion, of the childishness of our race, in order to be grownups. In order to live and be well on Planet Earth, in order that the lot of us can wake up and see that we have to be adults now — in order to SURVIVE — our gods have to die.

We have to kill them.

Zoning Out on Liberal vs. Conservative Issues

Con vs LibI woke up this morning with this diagram in my head.

I tinkered it up in Illustrator later. Probably could have chosen brighter colors or a better layout, but I got tired of messing with it. You may have to click-and-embiggen it to see all the details.

Especially note that the center vertical bar is labeled to indicate a gradation from Greater Factual Information (More Informed) at the top to Lesser Factual Information (More Ignorant) at the bottom, whereas the center section is labeled (along the bottom) for Lesser Emotion, while the left and right borders indicate More Emotion. In other words, in both the Conservative and Liberal worldviews, you can be more or less informed about issues, and more or less emotional and excitable about them. There are important social and political consequences that flow out of positions in each area of the graphic.

This is based on a great deal of thinking I’ve been doing lately — reflected in several recent posts — about liberal and conservative approaches to certain issues.

Mainly in this diagram, I was thinking that there’s that obvious place (lower left) on the conservative side of the line where people are both uninformed and excitable, the crazies and teabaggers and gunny Christian patriots who form the natural audience of FOX News.

Then there’s that zone up above and to the right of the Foxbaggers, a Platonic Ideal conceptual territory where rational people — Reasoning Beings — can be equally well-informed, and equally calm about certain issues, and yet still trend either conservative or liberal, according to their own personal history and experience. It is in this (sadly not-well-populated) zone that liberal-trending and conservative-trending people can meet and discuss issues calmly, and possibly reach compromise positions.

Interestingly, this is also a place where liberal people who disagree with other liberal people can meet and calmly discuss issues. On the conservative side, conservative-conservative meetings could conceivably take place to iron out differences, but that appears to be politically impossible right at the moment.

Low down on the right, there’s that other space that’s been bringing itself to my attention in recent months, the zone of the strongly liberal, excitable “OMG Screamers.” These people, with whom I would otherwise identify as fellow liberals, have begun to fall outside my fellow feeling because they react with great emotion but little thought. More than once I’ve found myself outside the apparent liberal mainstream on issues such as feminism, race relations, the homeless —  hell, even pit bulls.

I’m much in favor of marijuana legalization, for instance, but I don’t kid myself that young people smoking pot is some sort of wonderful positive end-result. I got into a discussion about feminism a year or so back in which one of the participants declared that no male, however staunchly in favor of women’s rights he might be,  should ever attempt to explain feminism to another man unless a woman was present. Despite my strong feelings about women’s rights, safety and choice, that (and a steady flow of other ridiculous assertions) persuaded me to drop out of the feminist (but not the women’s rights) conversation.

And yet I’m not, and never will be, a conservative. What I am is someone who insists on being liberal — compassionate, thoughtful, open-minded, commitedly non-religious — while at the same time paying close attention to the broader array of facts of each issue, facts that can sometimes lead you to disagree with a loud-voiced, knee-jerk mainstream.

There are people on my side of the line who believe you cannot be both liberal and wrong. Yet if you’re misinformed, if you fail to understand the entire situation, you can be not only wrong but malignantly wrong.

In addition, I’ve become aware — and I hope you have too — that quite a lot of the stuff projected at the liberal audience is designed to excite powerful emotions, while at the same time deliberately (or apparently so) failing to inform us of the full facts of each issue. I don’t like being manipulated in this way. I especially don’t like being herded to and fro by my own team.

When the manipulation comes at me from the conservative side, I can see it and defend myself by fact-checking, but when it comes at me from the liberal side, not only am I less apt to fact-check, if I DO fact-check and then disagree, even slightly, the price of that disagreement can often be a fairly nasty attack or dismissal from my own people.

There’s an over-dramatic act of line-drawing that happens in the presence of the OMG Screamers, where if you disagree with them even slightly, you get shoved over into the Conservative category and accused of hating the downtrodden of whatever issue is under discussion. This is an exact mirror of the same situation on the conservative side of the line, where, for instance, if you disagree about people with known mental illness being allowed to open-carry assault weapons, you’re a commie-fag-hater-of-America and probably deserve to die.

But obviously you can disagree with others around you on issues, in greater or lesser degree,  and yet still be arguing from within the same philosophical ballpark. Equally obviously, and in my view necessarily, you can disagree with people on details and yet still see them as allies in the larger struggle.

abortion restrictionsAs a for-instance, this graphic detailing U.S. states that have enacted strong anti-abortion legislation over the past 14 years shows a clear loss of ground for “our” side. We’re winning on gay marriage and marijuana legislation, but losing dramatically on reproductive rights, which has the potential to cause vastly more actual misery for women — but also for men, children and families. Not to mention the real social and economic cost of an unavoidable rise in numbers of unplanned or unwanted births.

Comparing the progressive loss of reproductive rights to catcalling, another subject dear to feminist hearts, one of them strikes me as something that should energize the concern of every reasonable person, the other — which probably received a thousand times more attention through the recent catcalling video — seems a minor issue designed to spur directionless outrage.

I think we liberals have to do a better job of THINKING about our issues, not only picking our battles but considering each issue and event carefully to see if we actually support the apparent mainstream position. More than anything, we owe it to our individual selves to be informed — well-informed — on any issue that we choose to speak out on.

I would much rather see myself up there in the company of Reasoning Beings than down in the region of the OMG Screamers, however effortlessly teamlike that second choice might feel.

Looking Past the Bright Sun of Crazy

sun[ This is about somewhat the same subject as my recent “bracket” post – the ignoring of the full array of facts on a subject at hand by narrowly focusing one’s attention – but spotlighting a somewhat different aspect of it. ]

I saw some people taking a “group of happy friends” picture a week or two back at one of those highway rest stops. Watching them, I felt an urge to take the camera away from them and reshoot the picture, because I just knew what they were going to get – a silhouette with absolutely no facial details at all. Because though the group stared into the camera and smiled, the camera-wielder stared into the sun and clicked.

If you’re unfamiliar with photography, here’s what happens when you take a picture with the lens pointed toward the sun: The built-in light meter on your camera sees the sun and goes “Ooh, this is extremely bright. I’d better back off on the exposure so the final picture isn’t just a bright wash.” But when it backs the exposure down, EVERYTHING gets less bright – darker – in the final picture. The ultra-bright sun is tolerably exposed, but everything else is shifted into pitch-black shadow, with almost no detail. Your line of friends turns into a faceless silhouette with the bright sun behind it.

The proper way to do it is for the camera-holder to stand with the sun at his back, or at least the side. That way, the final picture appears properly exposed, with no detail-swallowing shadows.

It occurs to me that the situation serves as a useful metaphor for thinking about certain issues of social commentary. Because in quite a lot of current public debate, we see only the blinding wash of extremes. Moderates have become invisible.


Example: I’ve been frustrated over and over at the GMO debate, where pro-science people, people I know and ordinarily trust, come down in favor of GMOs in an argument-impervious way.

Most of us know the GMO field of argument contains a certain number of shrieking Crazies, the people who claim GMOs cause cancer, autism … hell, exploding eyeballs, shrinking weenies, who knows what else?

Against that blinding sun, GMO fans, who honestly believe the science should proceed unhindered by crazies and that the world needs a certain amount of efficiently-engineered foods to feed growing world population, can’t see anything but US vs. THEM. There’s the progress-minded US who favor science, and there’s the crazy THEM who want to destroy all things good. If there are any moderate positions, they are overshadowed in the brilliant glare of the crazies.

It’s a somewhat understandable reaction, of course. There are people out there who are not only bugfuck insane – OMG CHEMTRAILS!!! – but who are willing to lie about anything and everything to infect others with their same insanity.

But the thing is, there ARE some moderate arguments about hazardous aspects of GMOs. Hell, just the fact that nothing is entirely safe, that everything offers some sort of downside, is a legitimate argument. But get into any discussion with a GMO fan online, and you will instantly be branded a Tinfoil-Hat Crazy. Why do you hate the starving children? Why do you hate science? What’s wrong with YOU?

If GMOs were peanut butter, the wackadoodles would of course scream that it was deadly. In reaction, the pro-peanut-butter group would say they were crazy, that peanut butter is totally safe, and even necessary. But in the middle, you’d have to recognize that peanut butter is BOTH safe/nutritious and yet – to some people – deadlier than rattlesnake venom.

To the pro-GMO crowd, there is the glorious truth and necessity of GMOs, and there are the science-hating crazies, with no nuances, no colors or gradations in between. They can’t see moderate arguments in the blinding glare of the crazy ones. EVERY critical argument blends into that one black background.

As someone who thinks of himself as a middle-ranger, it’s frustrating enough that I’ve stopped even trying to talk to the GMO fans. In the time I’ve been interested in the subject, I’ve gotten exactly ONE person to actually listen to me, and to be open to the possibility that there may be some hazards in GMOs, and that those hazards should be considered in the development of public policy.

(I’d started a multi-part post some time back about GMOs, but pretty much abandoned it after early feedback. I might attempt a second approach to it at some point in the future.)

The sad thing is that GMO advocates have reacted to the crazies with their own apparent willingness to lie, to obfuscate and argumentatively tapdance — Why, people have been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years! We can’t have labels because they would only misinform people! If you don’t like GMOs, you hate the starving children in Africa! — that is as offensive to me as anything the crazies are doing, and even less defensible because it’s coming from the supposed NOT-crazies.

Other Stuff

‘Staring Into the Sun of Craziness’ applies to more than GMOs.

In the political sphere, for instance, moderate Republicans have vanished in the blinding sun of teabaggers. The teabagger-driven GOP itself can no longer acknowledge moderates.

GOP moderates exist. They even speak up occasionally. But they don’t make the news in the way the pro-Christian, pro-corporate, anti-abortion, rabidly anti-Obama and anti-government crazies do. And they appear to have almost zero power to steer GOP policy away from extremes.

There are anti-vaxxers out there, and they are, in my opinion, the enemies of public health. I know it’s good for all of us that kids get vaccinated against measles, whooping cough, etc.

But at the same time, I don’t kid myself that every individual child is going to sail through vaccination without reaction. I don’t know what negative reactions there have been, but I have to doubt there have been NONE. Heck, EVERY medicine has side effects, and legally-mandated warnings associated with it. Just poking a needle through a child’s skin carries potentially-deadly risks.

Awful as it sounds, I’m willing to accept that there will be risks to a small number of individual children, but that those risks must be borne in the face of the fact that greatly MORE children will be saved by being immunized against these killer diseases.

But if I said “Yes, I have some concerns about the safety of vaccines” – if I acknowledge the real possibility of risk there, I know some people will hear only “He hates vaccines! OMG, he must be an anti-vaxxer!”

Yet in admitting that vaccines can have side effects, I can favor vaccination AS WELL AS an ongoing push to make vaccines ever safer and less hazardous. If vaccines save the lives of 5 million kids at the same time they kill 30, I can both live with that AND want vaccine makers to do everything possible to cut that 30 to some smaller number. Anti-vaxxer arguments are irrelevant to this goal.

The pure pro-vax view, though, reacting to the blinding sun of anti-vaxxers, would probably never say anything like that out loud where anti-vaxxers could hear it. Admit that vaccines can be dangerous and have the crazies latch onto that and use it in their next anti-vax broadside? Oh, no! Vaccines are safe! Totally!

Feminism. What if I told you gender equality should take into account the sociocultural advantages and disadvantages of both women AND men? If you stood in the glare of rape jokes and death threats from the misogynist crazies, you’d have a damned hard time even recognizing that this was a legitimate point. Women are 100 percent the disadvantaged ones, and the only men who don’t agree are the evil ones who want to rape and kill us all. You can’t even hear “not all men want that,” because that statement means they’re  not listening.

But then again, from the men’s side, modern feminists themselves give off a glare of crazy. In addition to men themselves, there are uncounted large numbers of thoughtful, caring, pro-male women who want equality and safety and voice for everybody, but who vanish in the hot sun of feminist crazies.

(I once had an otherwise-sane feminist blogger – a guy – all but accuse me of legitimizing child pornography, because I said the viewing of a starlet’s naked pictures posted online was NOT sexual assault. How the hell can you sexually assault someone you never came within a thousand miles of? It might be crass as hell to view the pictures – which I didn’t – but it’s not in the same class as rape. It’s also – in my mind, at least – in an entirely different category than child pornography.)

There are quite a lot of Christians out there who believe in evolution and who are generous about the rights of gays and women and even atheists, but who get lost in the glare of the Conservative Christian crazies.

As an atheist, my opposition to religion is to its innate effects. Even the moderate Christians are wrong, in my view, and their beliefs carry far-reaching negative side effects on both larger society and individuals. Even so, I already know I can live with them. What I can’t live with are the crazies, who MUST be opposed.

In all of these cases, if you say anything from that position of the Invisible Moderate, either side looking at you will only see you as being part of the other side’s blinding sun of Crazy. They can’t make out that a moderate position might exist, that someone might both disagree with them and NOT be a crazy. That they themselves might be a little bit wrong.

But also in all of these cases, that middle ground – outside the umbra of loud, excitable adamant people – is the place where reasonable people are actually thinking about stuff, coming to their own quiet, solid conclusions.

When you think about it, that middle ground is really the only place where reasonable stuff ever happens. It’s only when you acknowledge that you can be wrong, that you might not be seeing the whole picture, the bigger picture, and THEN look into the dark places for missing facts and nuances, undertaking the further research and thought required to complete the picture, that you begin to be a reasoning being.

In the same way I’m greatly in favor of vaccination, you can still hold and voice strong opinions on any subject at hand. The advantage is that you’re better informed toward the position you finally take, and less influenced by the extremes.

It’s not your fault that, taking a moderate position, certain people will see you as one with the crazies.

But if you’re one of those people who sees only bright sun and darkness, perfect reason and absolute craziness in some important issue before you, before all of us, that IS your fault.

Race and Culture Again: Bessie and Lois

Jim CrowHere’s a chunk of memory that bubbled up when Facebook friend Dre Morell posted on The Old Jim Crow Etiquette.

In 1950s Texas, when and where I was born, pretty much all of the Jim Crow stuff was in effect. Of course what you’ll read in the linked article was in addition to the separate white and colored drinking fountains, separate white and colored restrooms, the No Negroes policies at “white” swimming pools and schools. I remember several conversations among adults where a black teenager was shot and killed for crossing the corner of a white person’s lawn. This action was widely admired and the story passed back and forth for weeks. One visitor remarked that in Alabama, to shoot someone legally they had to actually be in your house, or at least fall inside the doorsill. The conclusion was that if you shot someone in Alabama, you’d better drag him into the house to make it legitimate.

This section here reminded me of a local black woman, Bessie, who took in ironing:

Never assert or even intimate that a White person is lying.
Never impute dishonorable intentions to a White person.
Never suggest that a White person is from an inferior class.
Never lay claim to, or overly demonstrate, superior knowledge or intelligence.
Never curse a White person.
Never laugh derisively at a White person.
Never comment upon the appearance of a White female.

None of that stuff applies directly to Bessie, but when she came to the house, she would not step up onto our porch, or knock on the door, but would stand on the front walkway and call out — not too loud — “Miz Fox! I’m heah with th’ ironin’!” My mother would step out onto the porch to pay her — 10 cents per shirt — and hand over a bag with a new bunch of laundered, wrinkled shirts.

Standing at the foot of the stairs was considered respectful, and I heard Bessie referred to many times as “a good nigger.” Carrying a load of shirts, she walked at least six blocks to our house, which was just over the dividing street in the “white” part of town. On the other side of that street was a section referred to as “them Messcans,”  with the more distant area where Bessie lived casually called “Niggertown.”

It’s interesting looking back on that part of my life, I can’t remember a single actively racist act on the part of either of my parents. I played with “them Messcans” — in their yards and ours — with full approval of my parents, and nobody in my family went out of their way to hurt any black or brown person. One of my father’s favorite places to eat was a deep-pit barbecue shack — the stone pit in the middle featuring meats grilling over glowing coals and surrounded by tables and folding chairs, with a broad roof over it but no walls —  where black and white people mingled somewhat casually.

Yet we lived in that time and that place, and we accepted the race rules — rules of language and behavior — without thought or complaint.

Bessie was, as near as I can make out from the few memories I have of her, serious, hard-working, honest and prompt. In her small way, she was a good businesswoman. The few times we drove over to drop off shirts, I remember her kids being clean and well-dressed, and her house and yard immaculate. In values and lifestyle, she was more like my own family than we could have ever thought about admitting.

On the other hand …

My mother had a friend named Lois that lived a few miles away, and we often went to visit her. Lois and her husband Smitty lived in a house that had a TV repair shop on the front of it, and there was a tomboyish daughter about my age (Dorothy? Dotty?) to play with. Their house was right next to railroad tracks, and trains came through often enough that I never went there without taking a nail or a penny to put on the tracks for flattening.

Their back yard was a clutter of rusted autos and hulking piles of random junk that must have been dangerous as hell, but that we ran and played in without a care.

As to the house … I hated going inside Lois’s house because it STANK. The back door opened into the kitchen, and the first thing to catch your eye if you went through that door was a sink full of filthy dishes that might have been, for all I know, weeks old. A reeking garbage can stood nearby, and sink and garbage both were attended by flies and roaches — in plain sight, in the daylight, and completely outside the notice or care of Lois, Smitty or Dotty. The floor was sometimes so nasty your feet would stick to it, or grind on it with a sandy crunch.  The few times I was offered food or drink at Lois’s, I quickly said “No, thank you.” (I have a weirdly vivid remembrance of being handed a glass of water there, but then not drinking it because of greasy fingerprints on the supposedly “clean” glass; after that, I drank out of the hose.)

Lois was huge and shapeless and sometimes came to the door with casual smudges of dirt on her face or arms. She wore tentlike dresses with bra straps showing, and was never without a hand-rolled cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth. She had a face like a bulldog and a braying voice that would have pricked up donkeys’ ears.

I remember Smitty slouched in a rump-sprung couch somewhere deeper in the house, just inside the doorway that led into the TV repair shop. Both Smitty and couch were shiny with dirt, and the smell of the place was a wall-like solid to my sensitive nose.

I hear all the time “You shouldn’t judge people” but I would disagree emphatically in this case.  Living in filth and comfortable with it, Smitty and Lois were the worst sort of White Trash. Even at the age of 5 or so, I thought they were repulsive. I liked playing with Dotty on the railroad tracks, but her family, and their house … yuck.

The point of all this is that the Skin Color Line that determined who associated with who placed gross-as-hell Lois, who was white, on the near side of the line and hard-working, self-respecting Bessie, who was black, on the far side.


I understand the historical dependence on race — after all, skin color is an easy feature to see and react to — but damn, I would really like for us to get the heck over it, to understand that, if anything, we’re separate by culture, by values and aspirations, and not by color.

At the same time — right this second, I’m thinking mainly of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in France by Islamists, but the point is a broad one — I would like for us to HOLD each other to those values and aspirations, whatever we choose as the signature values and aspirations of decent people, and understand that it’s possible to not measure up. Coexistence makes us neighbors, yes, but only shared values and aspirations — things that take some effort — can make us fellows.

Beta Culture: Seeing The Brackets

Bracket copyLook at the illo attached to this post.

You’ll notice two main things. One is the pair of brackets with “My Thing” inside them. The other is a large space filled with other stuff, such as “data, info, facts, details, research, opinions, views, past experience, science.”

Imagine that the large space on the graphic, both inside and outside the brackets, is the universe of all possible information on some subject. Imagine further that the small space inside the brackets is that specific small body of detail I want to get you to focus on.

The material inside the brackets might be the wonderful attributes of this new underarm deodorant I’ve invented. It might be all the positive arguments in favor of legalized prostitution. It might be the glowing qualities of a political candidate, or the wonderful trueness and absolute necessity of Feminism. It might be the delightful entertaining qualities of a new TV show, or the zap-smash-zowie excitement of an upcoming movie. It might even be … me.

Whatever it is, it is right there inside the brackets, and it is there and only THERE I want you to focus. All that other stuff I want you to NOT notice.

If you noticed it, I might say “Oh, that stuff will only confuse you.  It’s bullshit, it’s lies. Besides, why do you need that? I’m telling you the stuff you really need to know. You know, the true stuff, the good stuff, the stuff that will change your life for the better. The stuff that OUR people believe, unlike the nasty stuff those ugly shits on the other side believe.” I might say “If you notice that other stuff, you hate women, you’re a commie and a traitor and you’re going to hell.”

But if I do my thing right, you WON’T notice the other stuff. Or if you do, you will automatically reject it all on your own.

Religion is a good example of this sort of thing. There’s this stuff inside the brackets — the Bible, the miracles, the soaring beauty of the chapel, the fuzzy details of glorious afterlife, the fellowship of the church, all the intense loving, tribal experience of your religion.

And outside the brackets is … everything else. Reality. Reason. Scientific facts. The undeniable conflicts of the various parts of the Bible, the historical inaccuracy, even the doubtfulness of the existence of Jesus himself. All the things atheists say. The fact that thousands of other religions exist, and that their followers all think they have the one right one.

If you notice the stuff outside, if you think about it … you maybe end up losing your religion. Giving it up. Seeing its limits and its mistakes and even its lies.

But if you stay safely inside the brackets, focused on believing what’s in there and ignoring all the other stuff, however much of it there is, you can continue to snuggle comfortably within the limits of your religion. Given that most of us are raised inside the brackets of religion, taught that only the stuff inside the brackets is true, and safe, and good, it’s not hard to see how so many of us stay in there.

The thing for an atheist such as myself, though, is that religion is the too-obvious Bad Guy. What other sorts of brackets present themselves to us in daily life?

More than you can ever imagine.  Products. People. Philosophies. Entertainment. Political parties. Even social justice movements.

Everything, EVERYTHING that someone wants you to believe, or agree with, or vote for, or buy, or devote your life and energies to, is presented to you via such brackets. Everything, EVERYTHING, presented to you for your approval or purchase is accompanied by a larger body of facts, details and data that really and truly exist, but that the seller (which may be someone you trust and love) hopes you won’t notice.

The entire job of a prosecutor is to present bracketed facts to the jury showing the defendant is guilty. The entire job of a defense attorney is to carefully prepare a bracket that spotlights the defendant’s innocence, or throws doubt on the prosecutor’s bracket-argument of guilt. The entire job of an advertiser is to present a bracket convincing you of the wonders of Helmann’s mayonnaise, or Vlasic pickles. The entire job of a political candidate is to convince you he loves babies, freedom, Jesus, and fiscal responsibility … and that the other guy molests underaged male goats.

Suppose you become a faithful bracketeer, and you buy and agree with the stuff inside your favorite pair of brackets. You’re an ardent feminist, a devoted Chevy customer, a complete and total political Liberal. You’re a passionately driven hater of war, and Justin Bieber, and Ayn Rand. You’re a vegan, a lover of pit bulls, a defender of GMOs, a staunch union man, a great fan of tattoos and piercing.

Knowing the brackets exist, and that there’s a huge amount of stuff outside them that you’re comfortably not noticing, how do you feel about yourself? Probably in this moment, while you’re still reading this, you feel pretty good. Because hey, all that outside stuff is lies, right? Only tinfoil-hat crazies believe that shit. Besides, it’s irrelevant, because you’ve got the real stuff, the good stuff, the only stuff worth noticing and knowing.

But how about if you were once a great fan of Bill Cosby, or OJ Simpson? How about if you loved your stepfather for a thousand different reasons, but later found out he was steadily molesting your little sister for all the years she lived at home? Or you supported the Iraq War without reservation, but then lost your son because his Army-supplied body armor was substandard, and worse, that the Secretary of Defense knew it in advance? Or maybe you just loved the McRib, but then found out what was actually in it? How about if you learn that some of your most closely-held bracket loyalties were drastically, horribly wrong? Then what?

Of course you’ll be inclined to rethink previous loyalties and beliefs. But you still probably won’t notice the underlying phenomenon of brackets. Which — at least so I think — you MUST do.

But it won’t be easy. If you venture outside the brackets, if you even SEE the brackets, the bracketeers around you — MOST of the people you know — are not going to like you as much as they once did. You will make them uncomfortable. You will be suspect. You will be alien, and no longer quite safe to talk to.

But you’ll be yourself. ONLY yourself, and not just a subself of one sect or another of bracketeers.

If you care about that sort of thing, I mean. It certainly does feel GOOD to be a bracketeer among fellow bracketeers. You don’t have to do all that uncomfortable reading and noticing and thinking, and you never have to reach your own conclusions about stuff. You never have to work and strain to see what’s outside the brackets. You can feel safe and loved and accepted, and in comfortable full agreement with your leaders and spokesmen and fellow bracketeers — who you already know are truly good people.

All you have to do is never question, never think, never speak up, never — even in the privacy of your own mind — disagree. Buy the lottery tickets, get the tattoos, smoke the Marlboros, eat your kale, vote only for Democrats. And shut up.

Somewhere out there, I hope there are people energetic enough, thoughtful enough, contrary enough, but also kind enough, to think their own thoughts, reach their own conclusions, and share them freely with others. People who see the brackets, who venture outside them, and who accept the social consequences in a desire to be a better person in a better world.

I hope to know them.

Catholic Church Flexing Muscle in U.S. Hospitals

According to Wikipedia:

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest non-government provider of health care services in the world. It has around 18,000 clinics, 16,000 homes for the elderly and those with special needs, and 5,500 hospitals, with 65 per cent of them located in developing countries. In 2010, the Church’s Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers said that the Church manages 26% of the world’s health care facilities. The Church’s involvement in health care has ancient origins.

What a sweet bunch of guys, huh? Actually yes, I’d say.

But check this out:

US Bishops Working To Ban Hospitals From Providing Women With Common Form Of Birth Control

Last month, seemingly without notice or reason, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops changed its policy and banned Genesys Health System, a Catholic medical center in Michigan, from performing tubal ligations, the second most common form of birth control for women in their 30s and 40s in America. Upon a woman’s request, immediately after she had given birth, doctors would “tie her tubes” to prevent future pregnancies. 700,000 are performed annually across the country.

According to ProPublica, quoted in the article, “Ten of the 25 largest health systems in the nation — and four of the five largest nonprofit networks —are now Catholic-sponsored.” This is important, as the article says, because Catholic Bishops control policy in Catholic hospitals in thousands of communities across the United States.

It matters what’s legal, and we’re all behind maximized access to reproductive care for all women. But what’s LEGAL and what’s AVAILABLE are unfortunately two different things. And may soon be even more so.

The Catholic Church of course believes it has the right to limit health care to women according to various tenets of its core doctrine. But isn’t this the same thing as a cab driver in Alabama refusing to pick up a black man, or a bakery owner refusing to make a cake for a gay wedding? The driver and baker have every right to their private views, but out in the public sector, they MAY NOT USE THOSE VIEWS as grounds for refusing to provide full and equal service to members of the public.

If these are public hospitals — and they are — this policy is intolerable.



A Short, Short Post on the Idea of Souls

soulsI kinda wonder how broadly the idea of ensoulment affects what we consider is acceptable to think and do. For instance, it occurs to me that war and the death penalty are easier to contemplate in a social matrix of soul-belief. Sure you’re killing people’s BODIES, but you’re not affecting their real selves.

Likewise I wonder if our rather casual approach to drug use is somehow a result of that same idea. If you think your brain is YOU, that any change or damage to it is a direct assault on your most intimate Self, it seems to me you’d be especially careful about consuming things that impact it. But if you think the REAL you is this disembodied soul-thingie, and that anything you do to “my body” or “my brain” is just another experience, you might be a lot more accepting of the idea of consuming or doing something that might dramatically alter those … mere material possessions.

Every day in my work with addicts (I’m not a counselor, just a driver), I hear clients talking about taking heroin or other drugs purchased from street dealers, and I have a hard time imagining opening up the top of my head and allowing some unwashed street hustler to diddle with the contents inside. But that’s exactly what they’re doing. Years back, I read about some kids who accepted designer-drug capsules at a party, and wound up with instant, permanent Parkinson’s disease.

Gah. Mega-creepy. Why would you even CONSIDER such a thing? Well, you might consider it if you and everyone around you had been lied to for a thousand generations, and your entire culture and society was based on the idea that we’re not really real, and that the real Self is this hovering gaseous thingie that somehow exists outside our mere bodies, safely distant from any effect of physics or chemistry.

I’ve thought a lot about ensoulment over the past several years, and it seems to me that this one idea is more pervasive, and more deeply affecting to us — from the individual level to the level of our entire civilization — than we’re able to realize.

One of the many things that worries me about present-day atheism is that those of us who free ourselves from our home religions tend to think we’re THERE, that gaining our little bit of personal perspective is the whole job. Hey, we’re free! Victory!

But the real job is this vastly more complex thing — remaking civilization itself. Reimagining and reforming a world full of lifeways that grew (and continue to grow) from the soil of  millennia-old religious conceptualization. The idea of souls may be the most basic and pervasive of the religious poisons. We have breathed it in as a species — incorporating it into our thought, our language, our customs, our daily lives, the gross structure of our societies and every little thing within them — so that we have little or no idea of how to live without it.

Our individual atheism is the first tiny step. It seems to me that a thousand-year journey stretches out before us.

I don’t know whether I feel good about being one of the pioneers, back here in the Dark Ages, or deep despair that I’ll never get to live in the sane world that might someday be.

But the idea that there’s this larger work before us, the necessary something-greater that has to follow individual atheism, is what drives me to think about Beta Culture as a next step along the path.