Lefty Pet Peeve

mass hangingThis picture was shared on Facebook with the caption, “Americas (sic) largest mass hanging of Indians.”

Hey, I’m in. I’m on board. The LEAST you can say about the alleged incident is that it deserves to echo through history as one of our most shameful moments. It deserves to be remembered, reflected upon, regretted.

As a compassionate, reasoning being — or so I like to think of myself — my first impulse is to find out more. This is something that needs to be a part of my thinking, right?

But … no further information is attached. No link. No explanation. No date. No location. Nothing.

I can’t tell whether this incident was perpetrated by forces of the newly-minted United States, by the pre-Revolutionary British, by Mexico, France, Texas, some pre-1776 state, or just generic “white people” acting on their own. I can’t tell whether it was even on this continent.  Might it have been India? Australia? Feudal Japan? China?

We don’t know. Not only do we not know, we can’t even guess. (Okay, from the architecture, I’m going to wager it’s probably not Japan or China.)

I’d think it would be obvious why this pisses me off, but I’ll tell you anyway:

In my mind, there’s a stark difference between INFORMING and MANIPULATING.

Informing is when you introduce a subject and tell me the full details. Or at least give me a start and then point me to somewhere I can (without, say, flying to England and digging around in historical accounts) find out the whole story.

Manipulating is when you project a knee-jerk emotional appeal with NO FURTHER INFORMATION.

Here’s the pisser: I’M ALREADY SYMPATHETIC TO THE MESSAGE. I’m on the “this is truly terrible” team. I don’t need to be manipulated, I need to be informed. He who informs me is on my team, he who manipulates me is not.

I’m willing to do a little research to find things out for myself, but it would be peachy if the original assertion contained SOME sort of clue as to where or when to start looking.

But whoever posted the thing didn’t do that. Is it that they couldn’t be bothered? That it was enough to rile people up in righteous anger? Was this aimed at evoking pure emotion, with no action or understanding necessary?

Was it meant only to inspire the lame-ass conclusion that White People Are Evil? Because THAT conclusion I’m  not on board with. It’s as racist as any other race-related generalization.

Actually, I have no trouble believing this act happened, and was carried out by “Americans.” But I can’t AUTOMATICALLY place that blame any more than I can automatically blame fresh graffiti on my fence on the first random teenager who walks by.

In both cases, you have to KNOW.

Projecting an emotional message at me, a message which I am already inclined to sympathetically consider, but which contains zero facts, is either the act of a careless idiot, or someone deliberately manipulating his/her audience — me. Either way, it’s a betrayal of the faculty of careful thought and reason I like to think sets me apart — sets US apart — from those people who make up the crazy, excitable rabble who so vividly fill the ranks of the teabagger movement.

Two conclusions:

  1. The person who would do this is no friend. He/she is, in fact, my enemy.
  2. I have no need to look any further into the claim. The bullshit level is high enough that I can ignore the thing entirely, and suffer no loss.



The Sly Accusation of Islamophobia

COE SquareI think we’re all making a big mistake in defining “Islamophobia” as “hates Muslims.”

OF COURSE it’s wrong to hate people. But it’s not wrong to have serious reservations about a religion, a philosophy or a culture. It’s not wrong to judge IDEAS, and to find them wanting.

Because there really are inferior cultures and beliefs, cultures that deserve to be hated and stamped out. I grew up in one of them — a racist Southern culture which insisted that skin color should be the decider for acceptability, and which wasn’t above using extreme violence and terroristic threats to make the point.

Islam, in my view, is an inferior culture. For the way it treats its women. For the way it creates a one-way door — you can step into Islam, but you can’t leave it. For the way it brainwashes its people, stifling creativity and innovation. For the way it reacts violently to harmless humor.

Muslims themselves are victims of that culture. Most of them are trapped permanently within it — lacking the freedom to marry whom they want, to wear what they want, to observe or not observe their traditions. Lacking the freedom to LEAVE.
Having reservations about Islam — even hating it — is not the same thing as stomping down on some group of poor, downtrodden people who only want to live and love like everybody else.

And yet we’re being taught, every darned day, that it is. On some level, I’m pretty sure this is deliberate. To the extent that we unquestioningly accept this, I think we’re losing an important argument — allowing our natural compassion to be used against us. In an avid desire not to be seen as haters, we back away from inspecting Islam with open eyes, fairly judging it, and we end up welcoming it in, allowing it to invade our own culture with its lesser ideas and philosophies.

As for myself, I’m actually in favor of accepting — of WELCOMING — the Syrian refugees. Aside from anything else, the United States helped destabilize the Middle East.

But I’m not going to blindly assume that everything they’re bringing over with them is good. If they’re coming here, I expect them to have first allegiance to America, and not to Islam, or to Syria. I expect them to fit in with US, rather than insisting that we have to adapt to THEIR beliefs and traditions, or that they can permanently maintain a separate culture. And yes, I expect them and their children to learn English.

For the rest of us, you wouldn’t buy a horse or a car without the chance to look at it, to judge for yourself whether it was something you wanted to welcome into your life. And you definitely would judge it. Treat Islam — which is not a group of downtrodden, helpless victims but an IDEA, a philosophy, a religion and culture fully equipped to defend itself — with the same clear-eyed honesty.

Finally, it’s not enough to say, as some are, that the extremists in Islam are no different than Christianity’s KKK. When’s the last time the KKK openly rioted and burned and shot people? If the KKK burns down a black church here in the U.S., we have no doubt that the people who do it are criminals and racists who deserve to be caught, prosecuted, and treated harshly. Not one honest Christian would celebrate the burning of a black church. Our extremists are on their own – with no support from moderates.

On the other hand, the Islamic murder of staffers at Charlie Hebdo, the French humor magazine, came in the midst of violent demonstrations all over the Muslim world. People were assaulted and killed, churches and schools were looted and burned, death threats were made. All out in the open – as if the people involved had every right to be doing it – with no white hoods or secrecy in sight. And eventually, a couple of guys walked into the Charlie Hebdo offices and shot 11 people dead. Because of cartoons.

Never let anyone make that comparison. The KKK and Islamic extremists are in no way equivalent. Even if they were, we stopped tolerating the KKK more than 50 years ago. They wear those hoods because even their own neighbors would reject them if they showed their faces.

We should no more tolerate the threats of Islamic extremists than we do violence – or the threat of it – by anybody.

And we should JUDGE Islam for its content, for the acts carried out in its name, and for the effect it has both on the people caught within it and those forced to live with it in the larger world.

Power: The Source is the Limit, the Source is Us

powerWould you believe me if I told you “government” doesn’t really exist? That when we talk about government, there’s nothing really there? It’s as fictional as religion?

So where do I think all those government buildings come from? What’s all that business you see in Washington DC — Congress and the White House, the Supreme Court and all those museums and monuments and stuff? What’s the deal with all the cop cars, and the uniformed people driving them? What do I think the IRS is, or the U.S. Army? What exactly is the local fire department, the school district, the Water Board, the city and county office buildings? What about all that sheer government POWER??

It’s just this: People pretending — or agreeing — government exists.

Oh, the buildings are there, sure enough, but they’re really no different from other buildings. They’re things people build for some purpose. But the something-or-other inside them, that’s just a bunch of people playing an elaborate game of make-believe. The game of “Let’s Pretend Government Exists.” And the power?

Let me see if I can explain it.

Say John Smith wants Bob Jones to do something for him. There’s a range of persuasions that can be called into play to make this happen. At one end is the generosity and goodwill of Bob toward his friend John, and all John has to do is suggest he needs the thing done, and Bob will jump to do it. At the other end, John holds a gun to Bob’s head and orders him to do it.

In between is John the cop flashing his lights at Bob the driver, John the distant tax collection official and Bob the annual tax-return-filer, John the teacher announcing a pop quiz to Bob the student, John the storekeeper telling Bob the shopper the total will be $27.16, John the preacher telling Bob the parishioner to say ten Hail Marys.

But in each case, and all the cases between those two extremes, there’s a hidden agreement. Bob agrees that John has the power over him. He PERMITS it.

The agreement is “You pretend you’re a teacher, I’ll pretend you’re a teacher, and we’ll proceed as if that’s something real.” For human social reasons, it’s real. But in any other way, it’s a pretense.

Even if John is President of the United States, or a four-star general, he’s just one guy, right? And so is Bob. Discount for a second the fact that one of them might be physically stronger than the other, and you have one unit of human power facing one unit of human power. EVERYTHING ELSE is that agreement. Bob agrees that John has the right to tell him what to do. Bob agrees to do it.

He doesn’t have to. He can say no. You might say “Well, John might kill him for it,” and yes, that’s true. But how many civilized situations really involve the imminent threat of death? Very few.

But in reality, John has one unit of human power, and only one … until Bob AGREES that he will lend John his power by doing what John wants.

Toss some other people into the mix. Say John is a four-star general. Surround him with a thousand obedient soldiers. In addition to his own single unit of human power, now John has the power of a thousand soldiers, plus the power of Bob. But only so long as the thousand-and-one people AGREE they will obey John. Only as long as they willingly PERMIT the general to have that power over them.

Fame is a sort of power. So is wealth. Every aspect of human social and political power is this same sort of thing. Put a billionaire — or a rock star, the leader of a country, a military dictator, any sort of powerful person you might imagine — into a huge empty stadium by himself, and he will again have only one unit of human power. This is why “powerful” people MUST be constantly surrounded by legions of sycophants — servants, toadies, secretaries, guards, henchmen, flower girls and all the rest.

Power in the human sphere comes only by the agreement of the people in the sociopolitical structure within which the power displays.

The democratic model of government is fairly open about this. In nations where political office depends on voters, there’s a recognition that “the people” are the ultimate deciders as to who has power and who doesn’t.

Every “rise to power” — think political campaigns, but also the rise of Hitler — occurs along a lengthy road on which the people being powered-over become gradually convinced, one by one, that they’re willing to cede their own power to the leader. They PERMIT the leader to become powerful by agreeing that he is powerful, and by acting, or refraining from acting, according to the leader’s wishes.

A totalitarian government works no differently as far as the source of power, but it conceals from the underlings any suggestion that their leader — or tyrant — is anything but massively more powerful than them. Yet his power comes only through consent of the henchmen and carriers-out-of-orders, and the fearful-but-willing acquiescence of the populace. You can scare people into fearful obedience, and it works for exactly as long as you can keep them scared.

No one enjoys being afraid, though. It’s why we came up with the democratic social model in which leaders are chosen by the people, each with his one vote which says “Yes, I’ll pretend you have the right to tell me what to do, and I’ll allow you to pretend to lead me.”

But in this social model, just how much “right to tell me what to do” do we give away? To answer that, we first have to realize that in the democratic model, the “leader” position exists not for the purpose of ruling over people, but for doing certain larger social work the individual knows needs to be done, but is unable to do, or chooses not to do, himself. The “ruling over” part of it exists ONLY in the pursuit of that larger work.

So here I am, John Q. Public, and I’m lending out some power to a police officer. How much do I lend him? Exactly the amount needed to do the job of keeping the peace and enforcing the necessary regulations. No more.

If you picture power as gasoline, and imagine a cop needs 13 gallons to do his job each day, we-the-public would provide him 13 gallons, possibly a touch more for unforeseen circumstances. But no more. We wouldn’t give him 38 gallons, or 70 gallons.

So a police officer does NOT have any extra power outside the bounds of his job. And even in his job, there are limits.

We don’t give him permission to beat his wife, for instance, to intimidate his kid’s schoolteacher into giving all A’s, or to beat down some guy he takes a dislike to in an after-hours bar disagreement.  All of those are clearly abuses of power, and we cut it off as soon as we find out about it. If the driver in a traffic stop gives him lip, we don’t agree that he can shoot the guy 36 times, killing him.

There’s some inevitable slop. You and I don’t have free rein to drive 90 miles per hour on the highway, but we somewhat grudgingly allow cops to do it. Not to race to get donuts, or to pick up his laundry before the cleaners closes, but to attend to NECESSARY duties which we assume he’s doing. As we don’t know what he’s doing, though, he’s free to skate over the line at least a little bit for his own purposes.

It’s this “skating over the line” I really want to talk about, though.

The job of policing, tax collecting, being a Congressman, operating a toll booth, all require a certain amount of lent power to accomplish the official duties. We lend exactly the amount necessary, and not one jot more.

A police car is a bit of borrowed power. We might agree that a police officer could need to take his patrol car home with him, but we’d end his power to drive it after he gets home.  If he leaves home for a shopping trip, or to take his daughter to a Little League game, we’d expect him to take his own car. Taking his patrol car would be a clear abuse of his borrowed power.

One of the consequences of such actions, if we assume power lent to do a job comes in limited amounts, is that every bit of power diverted to private goals makes the person less able to do his job. There just isn’t enough power.

There are two main points here.

One is that borrowed power has limits, the limit in each case being the boundary of permission of those lending the power. We all of us lend out our power for officials to do their jobs, but we lend out EXACTLY the amount of power to do the job, and no more.

So every official who uses the power of his position to accomplish his own private goals or feather his own nest is not only abusing the power of his office, he is also making himself less able to do his job. Just as if he used 5 gallons of provided gasoline to run his own private errands, he’d be 5 gallons down on the amount needed to perform his duties.

Second is that the power can be taken back. We can do it through the voting process, by removing the person from that office. Or we can do it ourselves by refusing to recognize the power of that one PERSON to order or rule us.

So what does all this have to do with day-to-day living? Not much, admittedly, under normal conditions.

I still think it’s important to keep in mind the situation, though, the origins and limits of power, in case you (we!) ever decide to make other choices about how much and to whom you’re lending it.

Power is purely a belief. There are no powerful people, except those we pretend are powerful. 

Random Tidbits

COE 235Telling Your Own Story

I have this very strong feeling that each person must “tell his own story,” and that others around him should honor that. For instance, if a friend tells me “I really like that little Jewish girl down the street,” or “I sure don’t like that lemon strawberry cake that Aunt Nita makes. I wish I could tell her but I don’t want to hurt her feelings,” in each case that’s HIS story, and not mine. If he wants to tell his story to others, he will, but it’s not my place to spread around that story. I might WANT to – maybe go to Aunt Nita and say “Nita, I’m not sure Bobby likes that cake. He seems to choke it down each time, but I don’t think he likes it.” Or tell the Jewish man down the street, “Ha! Bobby Summers told me he wants to bang your daughter!”

Or I might tell people “Hey, did you know Bobby Summers has an IQ of 80? I saw the test scores on the teacher’s desk! I thought that guy was just quiet, but it’s because he’s so stupid he can’t keep up with the conversation!”

Or I might whisper “Bobby Summers told me he’s gay! Did you know that? I can’t believe it! Oh, man, wait’ll I tell the others!”

In every case, what I say will change the relationship between Bobby and others – not because of something Bobby might want, but just as a side effect of something >>I<< have done. In each case, I’ve taken the choice out of his hands by telling HIS story. I’ve stolen away some of his freedom.

This is not about saying good things or bad things about people, it’s about who has the right to tell the good things or bad things.

In the cases above, it’s better for me to keep my mouth shut. I might tell people “I like that Bobby Summers. He’s a damned hard worker and a true friend.” Or “Seems to  me Bobby Summers can drive a car better than anybody I ever met. I think he should be a professional driver!” Or “That lame-ass bastard Summers was late to work today, forcing me to work overtime.” That’s me sharing stuff that includes Bobby, but I’m  telling MY story, a part in which Bobby plays a role.

But in all the personal stuff, the things in which Bobby should be free to make his own choices, it’s better to let Bobby tell the thing, or not tell it, and have each situation and relationship go on as HE chooses for it to go on.

Tell YOUR story. Let others tell THEIR story.


The Tribes of Man and Woman

Speculation: In every time and place, there’s a Guy Culture and a Gal Culture, with different mandates in each. Guys have some say over Guy Culture, women have some say over Gal Culture, but ordinarily neither has any say over the other.

For a girl to be fully accepted in Gal Culture, she has to do and say and think the Gal things. For a boy to be fully accepted in Guy Culture, he has to do and say and think the Guy things. There’s an intersection culture in which both boys and girls fit, but there are also these distinct side cultures.

I suspect there’s a certain evolutionary necessity that creates and maintains these two cultures, that being a part of Guy Culture is a vital part of a boy’s growing up to be a man, and ditto for Gal Culture and girls.

The Internet flattens things out gender-culturally, so that jokes that might usually be told exclusively in Guy company, or thoughts that might formerly be expressed exclusively in Gal surroundings, are now – if they are shared online, that is – opened out in front of everybody. Which brings some interesting pressures to bear on both.

As of now, the side cultures haven’t disappeared. For instance, there are jokes and thoughts and observations I tell only my close male friends – things I deliberately do NOT say online – and I know there are things women say to each other that men don’t get to hear.

But it would be cool to jump ahead a thousand years or so and see what the two cultures look like, or even if they’ve survived, to see what social or personal pressures the situation brings to men and women of the time.

Did God Mess With Biology’s Roots?

Tito & HankI’ve said many times that the true, full effect religion has had on human society is not something any of us is really equipped to notice. It’s so … everywhere … that we have little to contrast with it in order to clearly see the damage.

Even science, which escaped the grasp of religion and went off to change the world in ways religion could never have managed, still — in my view, anyway — suffers aftereffects.  For instance:

Here’s a pretty good article about something humans and beasts have in common — thoughts and feelings.

Carl Safina Makes A Case for Anthropomorphism

The subtitle, in my view, is more correct, though:

The marine biologist’s latest book uses science to show that animals, like people, have complex inner lives.

I would argue that “anthropomorphism” is a mistaken word, a mistaken concept. It springs from an error injected into biology at its founding. The mistake — the belief in a separate creation for humans alongside the more general magicking into existence of the “birds and beasts” — was a religious one. Because Christianity was the paradigm of the day, Western biologists had no way to know it was a mistake, and automatically assumed humans were totally different from all other forms of life. Which would mean that attributing “human-like” characteristics to animals would be viewed as automatically wrong unless you could present masses of evidence for it. Which is what we’ve had to do for the couple of hundred years since.

On the other hand, if that starting slant was that humans evolved from common roots with all other life forms, a more workable initial view would be to assume similarity, and lots of it. Anyone asserting we had nothing in common with other forms of life, THEY would be the ones who’d have to present masses of evidence.

Our similar traits — feelings, a sense of self, grieving, so much more — aren’t “anthropomorphic.” They’re part of a non-anthro common heritage, handed down to humans from earlier sources. Specific traits possessed exclusively by humans would have to have evolved only very recently and are likely minuscule, something like the tiny capstone on a pyramid, compared to the massive block of similarity below. That similarity occurs in areas as diverse as body mechanics and function, biochemistry, neurology, behavior, and yes, thoughts and feelings. It took us hundreds of years to begin to really understand that, when it could have been a founding principle of biology.

On a side note, the question of “language” always comes up in these discussions, and though I can’t clearly point at religion as a root cause, I see it as the same sort of a mistake. The capacity for language might have originated with us, but communication didn’t.  Communication, the conveying of information from one animal to another, that’s something pretty much everything on two legs or four does. (And it’s not always aimed at, or received only by, members of one’s own species.) Bird calls and fox barks MEAN something; when they don’t wish to convey information to the world around them, animals are generally silent. Dogs convey messages all the time to their owners — in body posture, ear position, tail movement, and vocalizations — and it seems to me that most of it is deliberate. The question of intentionality is certainly worth examining in each case, but the basic truth of communication seems undeniable.

Dawkins and Dennett in Boston

Dawkins ExplainsI got to see noted scientist, atheist and author Richard Dawkins and philosopher/author Daniel Dennett in Boston this past Thursday, June 11. I first saw Dawkins at the Reason Rally in Washington DC, so this was my second eyes-on viewing of him, but it was my first time seeing Dennett in person. I traveled down with three members of the Capital Region Atheists & Agnostics — Lizz Lloyd, Jim Piren and Ken Spencer. (A big thank-you to them for the company and the wheels.)

The format of the event, held in Boston’s Chevalier Theatre and the third of a 3-city tour featuring Dawkins and different co-speakers, was a fireside chat — a rambling, amiable hourlong talk between Dennett and Dawkins, followed by an hour of Q&A, then a book signing in the lobby.

The thoughtful talk covered mostly science-related issues, only dipping into atheism and freethought near its end.

Dennett spoke at length about The Clergy Project. He and fellow researcher Linda LaScola interviewed numerous clergymen who no longer believed, yet were still working in their field – mostly because they were unemployable anywhere else – and produced a study published as Caught in The Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind. Though the two researchers were careful to maintain the anonymity of respondents, some of the clergy members interviewed found each other and founded The Clergy Project, which now, Dennett said, has more than 600 core members – working clergy who are nevertheless atheists.

One questioner asked Dennett about plans for including some sort of safe house for women attempting to escape fundamentalist groups and families. Dennett admitted that The Clergy Project contained nothing of the sort at present, but he thought it a good idea.

Dawkins at one point during the Q&A said something surprising. The question was “Should atheists work with moderate Christians and churches to oppose fundamentalists?” The main part of his answer was that a team-up with moderate Christians could certainly be useful in certain circumstances, but he wasn’t in favor of it as a main strategy. He followed up by saying his primary concern at present is Islam, and added he had a quiet worry that “dismantling Christianity” might eliminate a powerful ally in opposing Islam.

A couple of beefs on my part:

First, the sound system in the theatre was subpar. Ear-piercing feedback squealed out into the auditorium for many minutes – and randomly throughout the talk – visibly annoying both Dawkins and Dennett, who soldiered on as well as possible. Dawkins even got out of his chair more than once to tinker with an on-stage speaker box. I have to wonder how it’s even possible to have such amazingly bad sound in an old, established auditorium.

Second, the ladies handing around the mikes during the audience Q&A session ignored me. I waved my hand in the air a LOT during the Q&A hour, and I watched the nearest mike-carrier’s eyes slide away from me several times. True, I was there wearing my cowboy hat, and I suspect she thought I was there to cause a scene, and didn’t want to give me the chance. (I DID consider making a joke by saying in my Deep South accent “If human bein’s came from monkeys …” before asking my real question. Ah well.)

With close to a thousand people attending, a LONG line developed for the book signings at the end. Dawkin’s final comment after the Q&A was to ask the people at the beginning of the line to be generous with the time of those at the end, and suggested no selfies, to general laughter.

Dawkins and Dennett sat approachably at a small table, and signed book after book, hundreds of them. This time I did get to make a joke, by first handing Dawkins The God Delusion to sign, then giving him a copy of Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist, explaining quickly that it was my own book, and that the bull rider on the cover was me. I’m pretty sure nothing like that had ever happened to him – he looked momentarily baffled as he examined it, then smiled big and graciously thanked me.

In the end, I got to personally thank both Dawkins and Dennett: “Thank you for existing! And for all you do.”





Boston Scenes:


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.

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.

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.

The Other Side of ‘Poor Robin Williams’

Robin WilliamsSome part of this is probably gonna make you uncomfortable, but I’m gonna just toss it out here anyway:

Robin Williams died today, of an apparent suicide. It’s strange how much it affects me. Years back when I was on vacation and Stephen Jay Gould died, I called home crying. That guy MATTERED to me. He was one of my people, a smart man and a scientist. The world was a colder, dumber, less interesting place when he died.

And now Robin Williams is gone.

On Facebook, a lot of people are posting and talking about this, and most of them are saying how great he was — as a comedian, a dramatic actor, a humanitarian, so much more.

But I’m also seeing a number of posts about depression and mental illness, along the lines of “Anyone can suffer from depression, etc.” About how terrible it is. About how none of us really understands what people with depression and mental illness are going through.

And yes, I agree with that. Hey, I had it. There was a year, back in about 1985, when I got so far down I felt … nothing. No feelings at all. I didn’t even feel suicidal, because that would have taken effort, and I just didn’t have the juice.

There is a depression beyond anything normal people know about. It’s like a black beyond black, a whole new spectrum of darkness that opens up once you get past all the colors and the light goes out. It’s the depression of no energy, no emotions, a place where even pasting an expression on your face is something like lifting heavy weights.

I was there for most of a year.

And then I got better. Part of it was getting a dog, something I had to rouse myself to care for. Another part, a big part, was I had my supportive, patient Cowboy Dad. (If you don’t know who that was, it’s a whole other story.)

But another part of the healing, I’m pretty well convinced, was because I got out of the family situation, and home culture, that put me there. Honestly, I haven’t felt a day of depression since then. I’ve long since concluded I wasn’t the type of person who simply has unworkable brain chemistry or whatever. I was depressed BECAUSE OF STUFF THAT WAS DONE TO ME. And once I got away from it, I started, and continued, to get better. There were definite lasting effects of the whole mess, but whatever problems I have today, depression isn’t one of them.

Anyway, here’s what I want to talk about:

I’d characterize Robin Williams as a certifiable genius. I don’t mean “genius” in the general fluff way, or as some sort of pun on his role of Genie in the Aladdin movie. I mean GENIUS. Fantastically, unbelievably brilliant. A 200-watt creative intellect in a world of 100-watt (and below) standard human duffers. A guy so energetic of mind and body he gave off HEAT when he entered a room, and everybody turned to see.

It’s genius I want to talk about. Because I don’t know anybody else’s experience, I’ll have to talk about mine:

I am NOT a genius. But my IQ is pretty high. Though I’ve dropped out now, I was a Mensa member for five years or so. Mensa is the worldwide high-IQ society, and I qualified from the time I was in the 6th grade. I didn’t actually join until decades later, but my IQ score was, as my 6th grade teacher told me, the highest he’d ever seen. (Ha! Bear in mind this was Houston.)

Guess what that’s like.

On the plus side, the journey of my life has been a very cool one. I feel that I’ve gotten to see things most of my friends and family didn’t see, couldn’t see, gotten to understand things they could never understand. Of course, I also got to make some rare mistakes, mistakes they never would have made, doing things in ways that never would have occurred to them. (And sadly, some of the things you see – things that other people blithely miss – are scary and depressing.)

On the minus side … Growing up in Texas, my closest friends were rodeo cowboys, and we lived in a backwatery country culture that prized cleverness but not intelligence. Hell, I had people on my back all the time because I read BOOKS.

Here’s my stepfather from when I was 15 and on: “Yuh ort to git yer nose outta them books, Boy. Quit that goddam school and go git chu a job.”

Yes, this is me saying it, but the fact is, I was a LOT smarter than every one of my close friends. But I expended a great deal of energy at masking it. Every once in a while, I’d slip up by using a big word, or by expressing an unapproved interest or an unusual viewpoint. I would forget where I was and just be myself for a moment. I would think about stuff and then tell people what I’d thought. Or they’d catch me writing – WRITING!! – in my Journal. And damn, if your home culture doesn’t value intelligence and thoughtfulness, or sensitivity, or writing (!!), you don’t want to do any of that.

Which means exactly this: It was lonely. And boring. (There was a price on that last bit: Because I almost never needed to study, I ended up developing very bad study habits that would cost me dearly in later years.)

I must have thought a thousand times over the years, “Where are the classes that would be exciting and challenging? Where’s the school that I’d fit in? Where are MY people, the people who think about things? Where’s MY world?”

In every school I attended, there were special programs and classes for the slow and mentally handicapped, but nothing for the gifted. It goes without saying that any normal class you were in usually moved at the speed of the slowest kids in the room. The speed of glaciers, it seemed to me. Some of my teachers would even stop calling on me, so the other kids could have a chance to answer questions or go the board and work problems. I took to sitting in the back of some of my classrooms, sneaking in novels to read. By my senior year in high school, I was skipping an average of one day a week, forging notes from my mom that said, literally, “Please excuse Hank for missing class Friday as he did not feel like coming to school.”

[ All those teachers that covered for me, if you’re still out there, thank you soooo much. You rock.]

The obvious assumption by the people who plan classes and academic help is that the bright kids don’t need anything, that with limited time and money, it’s the slow kids who should get the help.

Outside school, there were social things that happened. I learned that boy, oh boy, you definitely didn’t want to toot your own horn in the field of brain. If the subject of your musical ability came up in conversation, people would chime in with compliments. If it was your athletic ability, people would gush about it, with admiring comments and even envy. Your artistic or performing gifts – rave reviews.

But your INTELLIGENCE … no. Nothing. You didn’t even dare bring it up. You might brag about your other gifts, but damn, you did NOT want to say anything about your intelligence. Because while some of the guys might be jealous about your athletic ability, they didn’t dare be too critical, for fear of turning the spotlight back on their clumsy, wimpy selves. But one and all, they could – and did – make fun of your brains. “You dumbass! For somebody so smart, you sure are stupid.”

It got to where I was hiding everything I could, never letting on that my friend’s interests and topics of conversation bored the hell out of me (Race cars? Shooting pool? Soupin’ up your truck? Coon huntin’? Coon huntin’ DOGS? Gah.)  I liked THEM, but not a lot of what they did or said.

So: Lonely. Boring. For years and year and years.

The best thing I ever did was when I was 22, I lit out for California, settling in a little ski resort town, where I made new friends, found a whole new world of interests and activities, and met my Cowboy Dad.

Witness the fact of the Tea Party here in the U.S., as a data point for the argument that intelligence is not much prized. Even among some fairly bright people, talking about your intelligence is not something you do. Again, you might actually brag about being a great tennis player, or an accomplished cyclist, or even just play up your handsome/beautiful looks, and people will agree with you. People will admire you. But if you say anything about your brain, much less your GENIUS, it’s embarrassing to everyone in earshot.

You simply DON’T talk about your own intelligence. Not at any time, not in any place. Instead you make jokes. You self-deprecate. You act goofy. You distract from the subject. You laugh at yourself. In a way that you never would with any other gift.


So here we are talking about Robin Williams. And yes, some of us are talking about his genius. But at least as many are talking about his depression, his Mental Illness.

Poor Robin Williams was MENTALLY ILL. We should do more for the MENTALLY ILL. We should be more sensitive to the needs of the MENTALLY ILL. Oh god, most of us have no idea what the MENTALLY ILL are going through.

And I’m all for that sort of discussion, every bit of it.

But I’m going to suggest that there’s this other thing we might think about, talk about, at the same time.

Let’s talk about the needs of the MENTALLY GIFTED.

Let’s notice the kids with extraordinary gifts. Notice the young adults of quiet intelligence, and do something for THEM. See if they need anything. Set up programs to feed them, nurture them, value them, challenge them. Value the bright adults in your life. Tell them, show them, that they matter to you, and that they matter because of their gifts.

Because some of those brilliant people who suffer depression, maybe they don’t suffer depression because hey, those creative types are always on the edge of suicide, aren’t they bro? Maybe they suffer depression because, to them, they live in Bizarro World, a place that runs a half speed too slow, that delivers a constant stream of depressingly dumb social and cultural whitewash, a place that can never value them, can never give them the same sort of welcome it gives the average and the less than average, a place that forces them, as the price of acceptance, to make jokes about their own best attribute.

Maybe they suffer depression because there is no place for them here, and they know it isn’t going to get any better. Because we’ve never built a place for them, and indeed, can’t even talk about them without qualifying every sentence with “Well, you know, INTELLIGENCE ISN’T EVERYTHING. And besides, IQ IS JUST A NUMBER.”

Maybe people like Robin Williams aren’t mentally ill. Maybe they’re so good, so bright, so creative, so sensitive – all of this in a world that can’t give them what they really need, a sense of being SEEN, of being VISIBLE (and no, being on screen is not, or may not, be that), of being known and loved for being their brilliant true selves, and by people whose opinions they value – that they eventually run out of steam and just … die.