Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Epidemic of Teen Christian Suicides

To the Editor:

There has been an alarming cluster of teen suicides centered around two local public high schools and connected to the Christian youth group “Young Life.” As The Gazette reported on February 24, 2017, Discovery Canyon Campus (DCC) recently suffered its sixth tragedy in thirteen months. The paper noted that “at least” three of the victims were involved with Young Life. Then on February 28, 2017, Scott Harrison reported two more suicides on KRDO’s website.  These tragedies involved a high school senior and a sixth grader who both were enrolled at The Classical Academy (TCA). For those keeping count, that’s three student suicides in our community in a span of two weeks. Mr. Harrison’s reporting added that “several of the students who died were active in Young Life.” A parent quoted in The Gazette article stated: “The Web is littered with Young Life suicides.” Finally, I have it on reliable authority that one of the recent TCA victims may have attended the funeral service for the most recent DCC victim where attendees heard a supposedly uplifting message about the victim “leaving the darkness and entering the light” or words to that general effect. Those words are chilling in the context of what appears to be a copycat suicide cult that is ensnaring even sixth graders (whose veins are not typically coursing with teenage angst).

What is going on at these two public schools? What are the local & state authorities and the school district doing to investigate and address this emergency? A suspicious curtain of secrecy seems to be descending around these events. As Mr. Harrison’s article stated, “few details [are] available.” This crisis must not be swept under the carpet. The public is entitled to answers. The local media must stay on this story.

It is an open secret in our community that TCA is a de facto Christian school operating under a public charter and receiving public funds. Like the ubiquitous Christian fish, which has been a symbol of Christianity as far back as the second century, the school’s official logo evokes the ancient cross-on-shield symbolism employed by soldiers of the Emperor Constantine as they marched on Rome. It was also a well-known symbol used by medieval Christian crusaders.  Do the staff and families at TCA see themselves as warriors for Christ?

Events that TCA would surely like to characterize as “ancient history” give the question renewed urgency.  In 2009 the school was embroiled in a scandal that, according to a May 2009 article in The Gazette, involved numerous parental complaints of an “insular community . . . where racism and religious intolerance were allowed to go unchecked.” An outside investigation led to a report to the Colorado Department of Education that cited the school for, among other things, a failure to take corrective action in responding to “a pattern of racial and religious discrimination.” Given that teen suicides often involve bullying against gays or other persecuted minorities, the media should be investigating whether TCA has put its scandalous past behind it.  The undeniable link to Young Life in so many of these recent suicides only heightens the concerns.

Even with the limited information released to the public, one must wonder if the problem is a toxic mix of both religious persecution and religious doctrine. Christianity teaches that death is an illusion – an artificial barrier between the darkness of this fallen world and the light & eternal bliss that await every devout believer in heaven. For any troubled teen suffering discrimination or persecution at a devoutly Christian institution, these beliefs offer a bleak invitation.

Our community should also worry about similar trends at the national level.  Betsy DeVos, the new Secretary of Education, has long been a vocal champion of using public funds to support Christian schools through vouchers and the charter school ruse under which schools like TCA operate. As troubling as these recent local events are in their own right, the prospect of any major move towards an even greater role for evangelical Christianity in what should be public-secular schools ought to be raising alarm bells.  The Colorado Springs Chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation calls on all responsible authorities to ensure that the wall of separation between church and state remains impregnable.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Letter to the Next Generation

January 20, 2017

Dear Bub & Liv Bear,

            I’ve been meaning to share my thoughts and feelings with you since the day after the election in November. I’m taking some time off on this cloudy & gloomy Friday afternoon – the day of the inauguration – to speak to you both from my heart about my hopes and fears for your futures in light of the worst thing that has happened to our country in a very long time.  (Yes, worse than 9-11).

This was not an ordinary election.  Before now, I would never in my life have gotten so worked up about something so ultimately unimportant as politics.  But I think time will prove that we are in world-historically different circumstances now.  Of course, I hope we will look back in a few years on Donald Trump’s election and have a good belly laugh at how goofy and paranoid your old man was.  In the meantime, I have these pretentions – as your overly bookish and aging father – that I can offer some parental guidance and wisdom for the years ahead.  I have no special claim to wisdom; just lessons learned from many mistakes made over a half century.

Donald Trump’s surprise victory left me with such a profound sense of depression and disorientation that I was unable to look at a newspaper or my Twitter feed for several days. (I have found it impossible, again today, to look at the news; I cannot bear the sight of that man’s self-satisfied face or the sound of his inarticulate voice.)  For days after the election, I would walk into grocery stores and coffee shops, scan the crowds, and wonder who among my fellow countrymen could have been so foolish and reckless to cast a vote for that transparently fraudulent and ostentatiously unqualified bully.  I even found myself welling up with loathing for anyone who could have fallen for such an obvious con-man.  I wanted to punch the smug smiles of people wearing Trump tee-shirts emblazoned with that inane slogan.  I’m not proud of that; and I can say that these ugly feelings have passed. Yet I still find it difficult to understand anyone who could have been so clueless as to miss (or ignore) the obvious danger represented by this repulsive and over-rated primate.  I find it is the understanding part that is the hardest.  It still seems like a nightmare we should be waking up from.

I say all of this as someone who – I guarantee you – despises Clintonism more than anyone you know or will ever meet.  Think of the person you’ve heard attacking the Clintons the most during the election season, assign a very big number to that person’s animosity, and then square (or cube) that number.  That would be your Dad.  And unlike so many people who just opposed Mrs. Clinton for being on the other team, for wearing the wrong color shirt so to speak, I’ve actually read the books.  They tell a very ugly story.  She and her husband epitomize our corrupt establishment.  I would go so far as to say they are evil people.  They are at the very least common criminals. (As is Trump.)  In fact, I reserve my greatest anger for the corrupt Democratic Party establishment that picked Hillary Clinton.  (Their excuses for why she lost – the FBI!, Putin!, Wikileaks!, racism! – show they have learned nothing.)  But alas it turns out Cooked Hillary was the only thing standing between Donald Trump and the world’s most powerful office.  I really, really, wish it could have been otherwise. But those were the choices vomited up by the electoral process this time around.  In the end, the choice was an absolute no-brainer for all thinking adults.  How could 63 million people have been so easily conned?

And so I am really worried about the world you kids will be coming to adulthood in.  As of today, the American Presidency is in the hands of an egotistical clown.  A cartoon character.  A man who mocked a reporter’s physical disability on camera.  A man who suggested “2nd amendment people” should assassinate Hillary if she won – then lied about it (he was on video!).  A man who bragged on tape about sexually assaulting women and who admitted to intentionally walking in on the dressing rooms of beauty contestants less than half his age.  A man who cheated thousands of people out of their savings with a phony university selling bogus “get rich quick” schemes and who achieved his own wealth and celebrity though sleaze, corner-cutting, and ruthless, sharp-elbowed business dealings.  A man who has been endorsed by the KKK (and who failed to categorically disavow that support).  A man who provably lied hundreds of times during the election and who refuses to observe the most basic norms of decency & civility.  A man with obvious (and disturbing) impulse control problems.  A man who could barely string two intelligent sentences together in the debates.  A failed (!) casino owner who lost a billion dollars one year operating a business whose customers are addicted to flushing away their children’s college funds. A thin-skinned bully who tweets insults to his critics at 3 a.m.  A narcissist. A sexist.  A racist. A boor.  Perhaps worst of all, he gives every impression of being someone who has not read a book in his entire adult life.  (Possible exception: celebrity kiss-and-tell memoirs.) He has no business being anywhere near the White House or the nuclear codes.  And yet, here we are.

Of course, Donald Trump is just one man – even if he is now, as of today, the world’s most powerful and dangerous clown.  I’m sorry to say it, but in many ways he is a perfect mirror held up to contemporary American society.  Loud. Showy. Vulgar. Garish. Arrogant. Celebrity obsessed. Television obsessed.  Ignorant. Attention span of a gnat.  Militantly anti-intellectual. Anti-science. Instant gratification seeking. Frighteningly unaware of his limitations.  We really are living in Trump Nation.  Indeed, we were Trump Nation long before November 8th.  And so in some respects, our democracy has produced the leader we deserve.  James Howard Kunstler used to be fond of saying: “we are a wicked people that deserves to be punished.”  Jim, I give you Donald John Trump.  Roost, allow me to introduce chickens.

My greatest hope – I’m not totally without hope, kids – is that Donald Trump’s presidency will be a wake-up call to a population that has been somnolent for far too long – too busy sitting on our sofas with our eyeballs glued to reality TV and gladiatorial sports.  Heaven knows I’ve wasted too many brain cells and unrecoverable hours in this way.  Maybe there is some kind of mad logic at work in all of this surreal craziness. I would pray for that, if I were inclined to initiate conversations with imaginary friends.

Speaking of reasons for hope:  I went to a memorial service last night for Murray Ross who died rather suddenly on January 3rd.  He was Nana’s age.  A thousand people showed up.  Forty years ago, Murray founded the TheatreWorks program at UCCS out of nothing.  It has grown into one of the most celebrated and successful small-city theatre groups in the entire country.  Listening to all the speakers and family members, I was so inspired by this man’s life and accomplishments. Murray directed hundreds of productions over the years – the classics, Shakespeare, contemporary plays, etc.  Several speakers testified to his insistence that every actor understand every word of every line in every play.  This, of course, required an even greater level of understanding and engagement with the text on Murray’s part.  In other words, the man spent his life immersed in the very best of what the greatest artists have had to say about our common humanity.  His great project was to spread Truth, Beauty, Understanding, and Compassion to his fellow man.  He touched tens of thousands of lives for the better with humility, grace and charm.  He was also a brilliant writer, a woodworker, a chef, a wine connoisseur, a professor of English and a beloved father and husband who stayed married to the same woman for forty years. 

I had a tough time sleeping last night.  I was dwelling endlessly on the stark difference between what Murray Ross stood for and what the new American President represents.  One of these men will be studied and written about for centuries to come – if civilization survives that long.  The other will be forgotten after his grandchildren have died.  (Ninety-nine percent of humanity is forgotten after their grandchildren are gone.)  It is unfortunately the way of things that Donald Trump – the bully, the fraud, the narcissist – is in the former camp while Murray Ross is in the latter.

I left the service last night reinvigorated and inspired to live each day more fully.  If we stay focused on the good we can do in our own lives and try not to worry too much about the noise and spectacle that the next four years is certain to bring, we can live Murray Ross’ example of a true “bon vivant” [roughly: “good liver of life”].

And yet, I’m writing because there seems to be so much that can go catastrophically wrong “out there” as you kids move into your 20s and 30s.  I know how paranoid and apocalyptic that sounds.  But most of the big moving pieces are unambiguously ominous. Debt levels – personal, corporate, and governmental – are crushing and totally unsustainable.  (This is the price of organizing society around the principle of getting something-for-nothing which is our national religion; and you thought it was Christianity?)  An economic crash is coming – the only question is when.  The planet is warming in very dangerous (and probably irreversible) ways.  About half the population is in denial about it.  Demographically, western secular populations are getting older and smaller while the populations of religiously fanatical countries are exploding. Too many of us are fat, lazy, tattoo’d, body-pierced, entitled, addicted, uncurious, and dumbed-down almost beyond any hope of recovery.  Largely as a result of that last sentence, our democratic institutions are in crisis (as this recent election proves beyond any doubt).  The Middle East is in chaos – thanks to a war-of-choice started to satiate our addiction to oil and our stubborn refusal to live simpler, more Thoreauvian, less car-dependent lives. The resulting flood of refugees is tearing Europe apart and weakening its commitments to liberalism and tolerance.  To top it off, instead of finding common ground with a secular, modern, Western country like Russia to stem the tide of medieval religious fanaticism, we seem bent on starting a new Cold War with a nuclear superpower for reasons that just confound and exasperate me. 

Civilizations rise and civilizations fall.  There are no exceptions.  I see no reason why the American-dominated post-WWII global order should escape the fate of all other civilizations in history.  Our working classes and our ruling classes are of an altogether different (i.e. worse) character than those who weathered the Great Depression and the Civil War.  And the bigger they are, the harder they fall.  You kids are going to be starting careers and raising families during difficult and unstable times.  If you want a glimpse of how things could look when / if basic services become unreliable (or unavailable), watch the news footage from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Then put 300 million guns into the hands of uneducated people jacked up on Jesus and right-wing ideology.

History will record, I fear, that the election of Donald Trump was just the final catalyzing event of The Great Unravelling.  In a decade or two, I think your children will be cursing my generation and the generations before mine for our greed and short-sightedness.  I suppose there is some cruel irony (and even some dark humor) in the fact that Donald Trump will take 100% of the blame for the mendacity and cowardice of his predecessors: the Clintons, the Bushes, the Obamas, and all their various clones and sycophants in the media and other transmitters of conventional wisdom. 

Here’s our situation: A statistically tiny number of angry white people in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have put your futures in the hands of a man with the temperament and attention span of an eight-year-old boy on amphetamines at a moment of history calling for calm & sober judgment.  His cabinet appointees – to a person – are either clueless, openly antagonistic to the agencies they will be leading, or religious whack-jobs.  Some are all three.  It is all utterly unprecedented. Fasten your seat belts, kids.

Even when Donald Trump is right about something – for a broken clock is right twice a day – he is right for the wrong reasons or because of questionable motives.  He is correct that the United States and Russia should be improving relations and working together to fight the barbaric & illiberal Parties of Allah (as well as cooperating on a host of other fronts and issues).  But his position seems driven by his own craven self-interests, and possibly, by his having put himself in the position of being subject to blackmail.  Just think of it: one man’s sick fetishes could turn the tide of history.

And so we witness the spectacle of otherwise sane and intelligent people, including many writers and thinkers I admire, falling over themselves to discredit Trump’s only sensible policy for the sole motive of slaying the Kraken.  The man is so vile & repulsive that smart people are driving themselves into a frenzy – favoring policies that could risk a shooting war with the planet’s only other nuclear superpower – just to avoid having to agree with Cheeto Head on anything.  This sort of thing keeps me awake at night.

How to live in such times? First, realize that other generations in other places have lived through dark and difficult times.  As bad as things could get, someone, somewhere, has had it worse.  Yet in all of these times and places, people of good will and cheery dispositions have managed to find Truth, Beauty, Understanding and Compassion.  And Love.  When the Goths and Visigoths were sacking the Roman Empire, Latin-speakers still laughed.  A cold drink of water still tasted refreshing on a hot summer day.  Flowers still bloomed and birds still greeted the sun with their exuberant music.  It takes very little, from the standpoint of creature comforts, to experience joy in this life.  And we tend to remember the good times.  Things will be no different if The Great Unravelling I fear comes to pass.

Now we come to the part where your Dad presumes to impart Wisdom (note: I have violated almost all of these many times):

Avoid chasing the superficial. Desire fewer material things. Simplify. Find what you love to do and do it. Get really good at a few truly useful things. Accumulate memories, not stuff. Never stop learning, questioning or doubting.  Demand evidence.  Change your minds when the evidence proves you wrong.  Be suspicious of the fickle passions of the mob.  Take the long view of things – past and future.  Leave everything the way you found it or better. Take care of yourselves. “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”[1] Gorge yourselves on art, literature, music and life instead. Get enough sleep. Eschew all poisons. Exercise your bodies and your minds. Dress as though you respect yourself and others. Read. Especially, read. Conserve. Save ten percent. Resist any urges to use profanity.  Get out of doors. See the world.  Help other people whenever you can. Try to see the best in everyone.  That will sometimes be tough.  Love family unconditionally and everyone else according to their desserts.  Choose your life’s soulmate very carefully and only after you have achieved self-sufficiency.  Do not love your enemies.  They mean to kill you.  Respecting their humanity and treating them with justice will be sufficient. Forgive those who trespass against you – if they genuinely seek your forgiveness.  Live every day as if it could be your last.  One day, it will.

Love, Dad




[1] Sage advice from Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

In Defense of the Freedom From Religion Foundation

The following was submitted yesterday as a Letter to the Editor of the local paper:

To the Editor,

Leaving an evening showing of the new movie “Jackie” last night at the Kimball’s Peak Three Theater, my girlfriend and I marveled at how charming and delightful downtown Colorado Springs looked all lit up for Christmas.  We have also enjoyed the festive religious and secular holiday displays located in and outside of businesses and on front lawns all over town.  And finally, one simply cannot escape the ubiquitous Christmas music playing in restaurants, doctors' offices, hair salons, and grocery stores between Thanksgiving and New Years Day.  Christmas cheer is indeed everywhere – as it is every year.  This is as it should be given the immense popularity of the holiday season to believers and non-believers alike.  Winter celebrations have ancient pagan roots.

I am thus quite puzzled by today’s lead editorial.  If, as the Gazette contends, “litigious publicity mills” like the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) are on an “annual buzzkill” crusade to “censor [!] the sights and sounds” of Christmas, they are doing such a terrible job at it that one wonders why the Gazette felt the need to attack FFRF.

I would like to correct the record about FFRF.  On its website, the organization acknowledges that religious holiday displays on public property are legal “in narrow circumstances.” It explains helpfully that the constitutionality of such displays is determined “on a case-by-case basis.” It provides a list of eight factors weighed by courts when ruling on these matters.  Most importantly, it advises its readers: “if, after assessing these guidelines and reading the summary of the two Supreme Court cases below” you think a religious display is illegal, then you may request assistance from FFRF.  Potential complainants are implored to “please provide as much detail as possible.”  This is hardly the guidance one would expect from an organization allegedly bent on making community leaders “shudder in fear” with threats of “nuisance lawsuits.”  While I have no direct access to the detailed criteria FFRF uses when deciding to challenge a constitutional violation in court, I assume from this publicly available information that it does so only when a violation is clearly present.  FFRF has a long track record of winning (or successfully settling) such cases.  The Gazette is free, of course, to regard such cases as “nuisances.”

I would also take issue with what appears to be a truly novel reading of the First Amendment.  The Gazette emphasizes that the constitution does not say a person’s freedom to practice his religion is limited to “private property.” This is undoubtedly true.  I can freely read the Bible aloud on my back deck and I can equally freely read it aloud on the corner of Tejon and Bijou (as a few visible preachers regularly do).  But whose religious views, specifically, are being expressed when a city prominently displays a nativity scene at the entrance to its main offices? Is the Gazette suggesting that the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment requires nativity scenes to be displayed on public property?  Stated differently, is a private citizen’s right to celebrate Christmas infringed when the government merely refrains from celebrating along with him?  The Gazette seems to think so.  Yet this would be a view of “free-exercise” jurisprudence not recognized by any court anywhere across this fruited plain.

Finally, the Gazette rather snidely describes FFRF as a “mom-and-pop outfit in Wisconsin” in order to create the impression that the organization is nothing but a small group of “mean-spirited activists” trying to ruin Christmas in small towns across America.  You really should correct this gross mischaracterization and tell your readers that FFRF is the nation’s leading church-state separation advocacy group whose leaders frequently appear on national television, whose cases often achieve national coverage, and whose annual conferences attract the leading lights of the freethought community.

Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays,

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Facebook Is Where Human Intelligence Goes To Die

Last Straw Alert & Farewell to Facebook (December 9, 2015):
FoxNews has suspended Lt. Col. (Ret.) Ralph Peters for his on-air gutter language directed at President Obama. This video rant has been blowing up my Facebook feed - mostly with approval.
Richard Nixon's disgraced Attorney General John Mitchell stated in 1970 that "this country is going so far right that we are not going to recognize it." He was referring to the ascendant "New Right" that was just then coming onto the political scene and that first seized power with the election of Ronald Reagan ten years later. Ronald Reagan: a politician who looks positively moderate by today's standards but whose politics were "so far to the right" in 1970 as to be unrecognizable to a Nixon man. (Wow!)
Working class ethnic whites (Irish, Italians, Greeks, Russians, Poles, Lithuanians, etc.) from the part of the country from which I hail (the northeast) used to be reliably supportive of unions, progressive taxation, and other policies that favored their interests and that aimed at a broader-based prosperity for all. These same working-class ethnics, usually Catholic or Jewish, tended to be supportive of church-state separation and suspicious of southern evangelicals (with all their odious Neo-Confederate baggage). They championed education -- i.e. being smart -- and wanted their children to be more educated than themselves -- in the classic sense of becoming broad and critically minded (vs. obtaining "job training"). For this reason (and others), they proudly supported wonderful middle-brow cultural phenomenon like "Great Books" clubs, local theater, etc. They were FDR / JFK types who would hang portraits of these great-flawed men in their homes.
Today, it would seem from my Facebook feed, the 1970s New Right and its values (free market purism, religious zealotry, militant anti-intellectualism, gun fetishism, angry calls to "take our country back" from [fill in the blank] etc.) have completely captured working class whites nationwide and a goodly chunk of the rest of the electorate. The heroes are no longer FDR or JFK but Joe the Plumber, Cliven Bundy, and that American Sniper dude. An education sufficient to read and understand those "Great Books" is not every American's birthright (that would be "socialist") but a form of snobbery. There is an apparent respect for this vile man Ralph Peters -- a commentator too extreme even for FoxNews who has disgraced the uniform I used to wear with his vulgar public insults against the sitting commander-in-chief. Some "officer"! Some "gentleman"!
These cultural trends are all so very, very ominous and put me in mind of Sinclair Lewis' great 1935 agit-prop novel "It Can't Happen Here" about the rise of a corn-pone fascist in the mold of Huey Long. Donald Trump is not from corn-pone stock. But in just about every other manner, he is Berzelius Windrip -- the main villain in Lewis' novel. A few years back, I thought our home-grown corn-pone fascist would be Sarah Palin but it turns out it's a developer of casinos -- i.e. shrines to the religion of getting something for nothing. Perfect, actually. And very, very ominous. I promise all of you that if we ever end up with a dictator in this country it will NOT be of the left-wing variety. He won't be wearing jack-boots and sporting a funny mustache but the philosophical similarities with you-know-who will be unmistakable. (Note: I don't equate Trump with a mass-murderer like Hitler, but he does exude the distinct whiff of a milder form of fascism.)
Since precious few forums exist anymore to engage in that vital conversation necessary to a functioning democracy, I had naively hoped that Facebook could be a place for civil / polite debate and conversation. Not just a place for sharing pictures of our food (to which I plead guilty). But Facebook is clearly beyond redemption when it comes to "discussion" of anything. It is where human intelligence goes to die. It is probably the best example of what James Howard Kunstler calls the "diminishing returns of technology" -- right up there with the robots who always answer the phone every time you call the cable company, internet gambling, and internet porn.
This will be my last post. I am quitting Facebook (cheers from some corners) which is becoming a rank cesspool -- like the popular culture at large, I suppose -- just as soon as I can save all my pictures and videos. I cannot take one more racist or historically ignorant "meme."
I shall attempt to politely advocate for a more enlightened and less angry world in other ways and in other places, Love to all.
Oh, and please read books. Good ones. "It Can't Happen Here" would be a good start. I will mail my copy to the first person who requests it in an old-fashioned written letter to me.
"Our most basic common link is: we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children's future, and we are all mortal." ~ John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Peace out . . .

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Virtue In Our Gardens



“Tough times demand tough talk” ~ Rush (Neil Peart), 1987

Our most Catholic and reactionary Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, speaking publicly in support of capital punishment, once stated infamously that “for the believing Christian, death is no big deal.”  Most writers and poets I admire, spanning the past twenty-seven centuries of the western literary tradition, would humbly beg to differ.

The ancient Greeks were obsessed with death – probably because they were obsessed with life.  Come to think of it, what makes the Homeric epics (and in particular The Iliad) important and relevant more than 2,700 years after they were written down (from an even older oral tradition) is their profound grappling with that most universal of themes: our passionate desire to live in the teeth of our self-conscious awareness that we will die.

We assume that we alone among the higher animals possess this self-awareness but whether that is true or not is probably unknowable.  Thoreau wonders if a greater miracle is possible than to get inside another person’s consciousness even for an instant.  If another man’s subjective consciousness is that foreign to me, then surely the consciousness of animals is beyond my imagining.  Do they know they are going to die? Do they have that gift?  Or is a curse?

Whether it is a gift or a curse is a question I will set aside for the moment.  What seems certain is that our awareness of the tragic fate awaiting all of us is the root of all religion, philosophy and art.  How does the certainty of dying affect the way we confront death?  How should we confront it?

Homer had one answer.  Notwithstanding the ancient Greeks’ apparent belief in some kind of quasi-afterlife for certain humans, where their spirits roamed around pathetically and semi-consciously, neither suffering nor rejoicing, death really was understood to be the end – a “big deal” in Justice Scalia's terminology.  There was only one way to achieve a kind of immortality and that was to be remembered forever.  What Homer called kleos aphthiton (“imperishable glory”) was achieved, somewhat paradoxically, through killing and dying gloriously in battle.  Achilles wins his imperishable glory, of course, but the real resolution of the epic, in the judgment of many critics, is his mature and adult acceptance of death as an end.

Christian theology offers another, more comforting, answer.  Death is an illusion.  It is not the end at all but the beginning.  So too for Islam.  By believing that death is "no big deal," -- indeed, 72 virgins await them in paradise -- fanatically devout Muslims can be made to fly airplanes into buildings or strap bombs to their backs on crowded buses.  The Eastern religious traditions, with their belief in reincarnation, also see death as an illusion -- which may explain why stuff like this happens.  Needless to say, viewing death as illusory is not a terribly good way to value human life.  And by comparison with Homer and Achilles, it is not terribly mature, adult or accepting, either.

As far as any priest, rabbi or imam actually knows or can prove, death is oblivion.  It is annihilation.  You didn’t exist before you were born and you will not exist after you die.  The world will go on without you, of course, whether humanity lasts another day (before wiping itself out with nuclear weapons) or another 5 billion years (at which time the sun will explode into a planetary nebula and obliterate our planet).  But your day is coming, don't you know?

Now, then.  Are there alternatives to imperishable glory gained through butchery, on the one hand, and the consoling fable that death isn't real, on the other?  Many great thinkers have weighed in on this.  But I honestly never expected to see such big questions so beautifully explored in a major motion picture based on a young adult novel.

On Tuesday of this week, my 13 year old daughter and I walked from my spartan flat to the Kimball Peak Three Theatre in downtown Colorado Springs to see the The Fault In Our Stars.  Like just about every other teenage girl in America, she has been reading this book and was really looking forward to seeing the movie.  "Daddy," she touchingly warned me, "this story is really sad."

Well, the movie was certainly sad.  But it was also impressively beautiful and inspiring.

Teenage cancer.  Tough times, indeed.  The Fault In Our Stars, which is a profoundly atheistic movie to anyone paying the most casual attention, opens with some of that tough talk demanded by tough times.  Here is the main character's voice-over narration at the very beginning of the film:

"I believe we have a choice in this world about how to tell sad stories.  On the one hand, you can sugar-coat it.  Nothing is too messed up that it can't be fixed with a Peter Gabriel song.  I like that version as much as the next girl does.  It's just not the truth."

A commendably adult attitude with which to begin a movie based on a novel that was supposedly written for children.  (Aside:  This lady is full of shit.)  And when you realize that "sad stories" is intended to refer not just to the sad fact of two beautiful teenagers doomed by terminal cancer but to the tragic fact of our certain oblivion, as individuals and as a species, you begin to see the complimentary levels on which the film operates.

We are all doomed and terminal, the movie is saying.  And now let us show you how love, joy, ecstasy, and yes, even hope, are possible in an essentially meaningless and indifferent universe.  I believe this is the great theme of all great art.

We are all doomed and terminal.  It is important to hammer this point home because it is a big part of what really makes the movie work.  I once heard the great Christopher Hitchens put it this way (paraphrasing): "it's as if we are shot out of our mother's wombs -- like from a cannon -- and we are barreling towards a barn door studded with sharp, rusty nails."  I think he was trying to be funny.

Even more precisely, we are all doomed to lead extraordinarily short lives.  Whether we get 19 years or 90, when compared to the imponderable twin eternities of the past and the future, our lives are the flicker of a flicker of a flicker of an instant.  Impossibly short.  And the Cosmos and Time are utterly indifferent to us.  From my favorite Robert Frost poem:

What now is inland shall be ocean isle,
Then eddies playing round a sunken reef
Like the curl at the corner of a smile;
And I could share Time's lack of joy or grief
At such a planetary change of style.

At the beginning of the film, Hazel Grace, who knows she is dying from cancer, is stuck in the stereotypical cynicism and hopelessness that all atheists supposedly share.  (Atheists hate this bogus and lazy stereotype propagated by people who don't know any better.)  Her mother lovingly browbeats her into attending a support group at a local church led by one of those insufferable guitar-strumming "up with people" Jesus-dudes.  He strums and sings empty piffle like  "Christ is our friend and he'll be there til the end." Yay!  I feel better already.  (Note: Whenever religion is shown in the movie it is either gently mocked, as in its treatment of this harmless goofball, or it is subtly protested, as in the final funeral scene.  But there is no god bashing.)  When it's her turn to speak, Hazel Grace stands up and gives the standard "what's the point" rant: the sun is going to explode someday, whatever or whoever comes after humanity won't care that we ever existed, there's no afterlife, I am going to die young, so why shouldn't I be cynical and depressed?

Then she meets her soul mate. Handsome, funny, and engaging, this Gus is a cancer teen, too.  But he tells us early on that he has been in remission for eighteen months.  As we get to know him, we realize that there is no logical reason why he would be at this same support group other than the demands of plot development.  Because Gus already gets it.  In the face of one missing leg below the knee and a possible relapse into full blown cancer, he is mature and cheerful beyond his years or his situation -- almost annoyingly so.  When it's his turn at the support group to say what he fears, he smiles, looks over at Hazel Grace, and with a twinkle brightly sparkling in his eye, answers: "Oblivion."

In classic Romeo & Juliet fashion, the star-crossed lovers immediately fall for each other. (The fault in their stars has a different origin than familial rivalry, of course.)  They bond over a fictional novel written by a fictional author they both briefly come to admire this side of idolatry.  I positively love the fact that they bond over literature -- although the raw physical attraction is fairly evident, too.  The novel, titled "An Imperial Affliction," ends with the sudden death of its main character.  When I say sudden, I mean sudden.  The book ends in the middle of a sentence.  Gus and Hazel Grace make it their mission to meet the author -- one Peter Van Houten -- so they can ask him, personally, what comes after the sudden end of the story.  (You can see where this is going, right?)  They make it all the way to Amsterdam to where he has expatriated.

Ah, Amsterdam! The great asylum for freethinkers and religious doubters of the late-Renaissance period, like Baruch Spinoza, who were being hounded and persecuted by the faithful.  The young lovers visit the house-museum where Anne Frank tried to hide from the Nazis -- more effective symbolism, there.  There is a charming dinner at an elegant restaurant at which Gus declares his love in words you would only expect by this point: "I am in love with you Hazel Grace.  And I know that love is just a shout into the void and that oblivion is inevitable, and I am in love with you!"  And there is a bedroom scene that will probably drive the prudish among us crazy.  They're just teenagers!  But the scene is very tastefully done and, c'mon already, these beautiful people are both dying.  Are you gonna begrudge them a little nookie before they check out?

So the trip to Amsterdam is mostly joyous (and gorgeously filmed).  But the meeting with Van Houten doesn't go very well.  It turns out that he is wasting away in drunken misery over the loss of his own 8 year old child to cancer.  He is gruff, rude, dismissive, and brutally cruel to them.  But he slips something of crucial metaphorical importance into the conversation: advanced mathematics, it turns out, has proven that not all infinities are the same.  Some are smaller (or is it shorter?) than others.  Hold that thought.

Then Gus dies.  Oh, sorry.  I should have said "spoiler alert," first.

I had not read the book.  For most of the movie, I expected the sad ending that my daughter warned me about to be the death of Hazel Grace.  But in a plot twist -- drama 101! -- it turns out that Gus' cancer comes back and he is fairly quickly dispatched to his inevitable and feared oblivion.

I shouldn't be so flip.  These last scenes are beautifully acted and very tough to watch.  There is just a touch of comic relief thrown in to make it bearable.  We don't want people slitting their wrists in the movie theater.  On the other hand, "pain demands to be felt," as the movie tells us more than once.

At Gus' grave-site, none other than Van Houten shows up to pay his respects.  (I'll skip over the plot device that gets him there.)  We get the feeling that, like Hazel Grace, he is moving slowly from cynicism to something resembling hope.  In another humorous poke at religion, when it comes time for the preacher man to offer the benediction, Van Houten bows his head and tells Hazel Grace that it's "time to fake pray." "We know better," his joke seems to say.  Then the preacher man announces it's time for Hazel Grace to give a eulogy.  He calls her Gus' "special friend."  In a subtle protest at his religious authority, she corrects him:  "I was his girlfriend."  The eulogy she gives at the grave-site is not the real eulogy.  She had already given that one directly to Gus, at his request, before he died in yet another heart-wrenching scene in an empty church.  Moments before another voice-over commenting that funerals "are for the living, not for the dead," Hazel Grace gives them exactly what is called for by the soothing myth that death is no big deal -- a bunch of vacuous pap and sentimentality.  Well, you certainly can't accuse her of the worst sin a speaker can commit -- not knowing one's audience. (Compare Pat Tillman's brother!)

So what does Hazel Grace learn from knowing and loving Gus -- if ever so briefly?

Here's what I think.  Recall the earlier points about the brevity of life -- even of a "long" life -- and how the present moment exists on a razor's edge between two incomprehensible infinities.  The ancient Greeks -- for some damn reason it always begins and ends with The Iliad -- called their gods the "deathless ones." By comparison, their word for "mortal" actually translated into something closer to already dead (or at least, nearly dead).  In other words, we all have terminal something.  We all have one foot in the grave.  Some of us, like Hazel Grace, are just dying a little faster.  But whether we get 17 years or our full Biblical allotment of three-score and ten, life is precious, love is achievable, and hope is possible to us.  And just as knowing the constituent elements of chocolate doesn't make us enjoy chocolate any less (shout out to Sam Harris), knowing that our loves, desires, passions, and joys were hard-wired into our brains by a cold and impersonal process of evolution by natural selection doesn't make them any less real.  It doesn't make life any less worth living.

But when it's over, I'm sorry to say, it's over.  How should we live in the meantime?  I don't recommend seeking glory in battle.  Nor do I recommend pretending that death is "no big deal" because, well you know, Jesus 'n stuff.

For myself, I tend to settle on the notion of "the garden" as put forth by that great infidel Francois-Marie Arouet (Voltaire).  "Let us cultivate our own garden," he writes in his bitingly satirical short novel Candide.  The general idea is to seek the productive, simple, and peaceful life of one who essentially minds his own business, loves his family and friends, and brings generosity and compassion to his dealings with others.  You might also call it The God of Small Things.  The garden is Jefferson as opposed to Hamilton.  A Republic as opposed to an Empire. The Toledo Mud Hens as opposed to the New York Yankees.

In a crucial scene in the Book IX of The Iliad -- Christ-Almighty, not The Iliad again! --  Achilles describes the "choice of fates" that he, unique among men, has been shown by his goddess mother Thetis.  He can win his imperishable glory at the certain cost of dying very young or he can go home to a simple life of domestic bliss with the guarantee that his name will be forgotten.  He can be like an immortal in the starry heavens or he can cultivate his garden.  We know what choice he made.  He orphaned his children in a quest for personal glory.  What a gigantic douche!

So maybe that's what it comes down to.  The majestic stars or a humble garden.  The fault in the stars, I would say, is that they are too damn impersonal, cold, distant, abstract and remote. A garden, by contrast, is down here on the Earth.  It is life-giving, fecund, profuse, and organic -- even if it sometimes smells bad and gets overgrown with meddlesome weeds.

Well, it's been a long post and I'm exhausted.  I will close this one out -- of course! -- with some lines from the Rush song "The Garden" (which is based, like the entire Clockwork Angels album, on Voltaire and Candide).  I believe these lines nicely summarize the movie I have been discussing:

The measure of a life
Is a measure of love and respect
So hard to earn
So easily burned
In the fullness of time
A garden to nurture and protect

The treasure of a life
Is a measure of love and respect
The way you live
The gifts that you give
In the fullness of time
It's the only return you can expect

The future disappears into memory
With only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen

"Forever dwells in that moment."  It is forever and infinitely now.  It's just that some infinities are a little shorter than others.  Right, Hazel Grace?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

(Perhaps) Worse Than Slavery

“That liquidation of private wealth [the abolition of slavery] is the only precedent for what today’s climate justice movement is rightly demanding: that trillions of dollars of fossil fuel stay in the ground.” (emphasis added) ~  Chris Hayes, Earth Day, 2014.

I cannot recommend strongly enough Chris Hayes’ recent essay in The Nation: “The New Abolitionism.”  Hayes has read Bill McKibben’s equally essential Rolling Stone essay, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” has found it to be “haunting” (as I have), has mulled over McKibben’s argument for almost two years, and has now produced his own tour de force on this most critical and difficult of problems facing humanity.

In our corporate-owned mainstream media environment, which has been scandalously hesitant to inform Americans about the grave implications of the climate crisis, Hayes has been a refreshing exception.  Now, with this long-form essay in The Nation, he becomes the first nationally prominent news-media personality (of whom I’m aware) to state – very publicly and very unambiguously – that the energy companies simply must be dispossessed of the trillions of dollars in fossil fuel reserves they currently own – just as the slave-owners had their “property” taken away from them.  Something in the range of 80% of those reserves simply must remain in the ground.

That demand is every bit as extraordinary and unthinkable as it sounds.  The great value of Hayes’ piece is that he persuasively helps us to start thinking the unthinkable. 

Although we don’t usually think of the Civil War in such terms, the end of slavery amounted to the liquidation of the private fortunes of some of the wealthiest people in 19th Century America – to the tune of trillions of dollars (in today’s money).  It turned an entrenched economic order on its head by outlawing the nation’s addiction to, and dependency upon, an immoral energy source.  It cost over 600,000 lives and the razing of great Southern cities, to boot.  Only a great moral cause could justify such a momentous upheaval in American society, right?

Is addressing the climate crisis a great moral cause equivalent to abolishing slavery?  I think it is.  The McKibben piece, that so haunted me and Chris Hayes, talks of “global catastrophe,” “the peril that human civilization is in,” and “a planet straight out of science fiction.”  Hayes himself writes that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground “if we are to avert a global cataclysm.” (emphasis added).

Cataclysm?

What would this cataclysm look like?  The chair of the International Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”) said last month that the impacts of climate change will be “severe, pervasive, and irreversible.”  According to the IPCC’s most recent report, summarized nicely by Mother Jones, those impacts include increased species extinction, reduced crop yields (with related famines and global unrest), increased heat waves, wildfires & droughts, increased climate refugees (with related violence), increased coastal flooding and erosion, and massive “adaptation” costs – to name a few.  This misery will be suffered mostly by poor countries that did least to contribute to the problem.

Please note that the IPCC is an unavoidably political body whose reports actually tend to stick to the less alarming claims.  Other prominent scientists and writers have sounded far greater alarms.  For example, Pulitzer Prize winning author Jared Diamond said the following, just the other day, in an interview with the “Inquiring Minds” podcast:

“Either by the year 2050 we've succeeded in developing a sustainable economy, in which case we can then ask your question about 100 years from now, because there will be 100 years from now; or by 2050 we've failed to develop a sustainable economy, which means that there will no longer be first world living conditions, and there either won't be humans 100 years from now, or those humans 100 years from now will have lifestyles similar of those of Cro-Magnons 40,000 years ago, because we've already stripped away the surface copper and the surface iron. If we knock ourselves out of the first world, we're not going to be able to rebuild a first world.”

I don’t think Chris Hayes sees the situation in quite such dire terms – i.e., the near extinction of the human race in 100 years.  (For the record, I don’t either!)  But Hayes does apparently believe the situation is quite dire, indeed.  As do I.  He seems to agree that humanity faces decades (or centuries?) of climate-related famine, war, death, and extreme misery.  If this is all true, mustn’t we start thinking of fossil fuels as an immoral energy source – comparable to human slavery?  I think we must. 

And this is the one part of Hayes’ essay that really sticks in my craw.  He goes out of his way, in two extended caveats, to disclaim any moral comparisons between owning slaves and, um, knowingly devastating the environment our grandchildren will be doomed to inhabit.  I would say the latter is at least as bad as slavery, wouldn’t you?  And slavery was, of course, an utter moral abomination. 

Here is the first of Hayes’ annoying caveats:

“It is almost always foolish to compare a modern political issue to slavery, because there’s nothing in American history that is slavery’s proper analogue. So before anyone misunderstands my point, let me be clear and state the obvious: there is absolutely no conceivable moral comparison between the enslavement of Africans and African-Americans and the burning of carbon to power our devices. Humans are humans; molecules are molecules. The comparison I’m making is a comparison between the political economy of slavery and the political economy of fossil fuel.”

And the second:

“Let me pause here once again to be clear about what the point of this extended historical comparison is and is not. Comparisons to slavery are generally considered rhetorically out of bounds, and for good reason. We are walking on treacherous terrain. The point here is not to associate modern fossil fuel companies with the moral bankruptcy of the slaveholders of yore, or the politicians who defended slavery with those who defend fossil fuels today.”

I am trying to imagine the cognitive dissonance Hayes must be experiencing.  Climate change risks a “global cataclysm,” one that will almost certainly result in massive famine, death and misery.  But the energy source responsible for all of this future misery cannot be compared, on moral terms, to slavery.  Even when we now know what our gluttonous consumption will cause.  According to Hayes, “there is absolutely no conceivable moral comparison” (emphasis mine)! 

This represents a breath-taking failure of the imagination – focusing on the short-term and immediately visible consequences of filling your tank (seems harmless enough, eh?) and evading the baked-in and truly “terrifying” longer-term consequences.  To be honest, I don’t think Hayes believes his own bullshit.  He is too smart.  Rather, I think he is afraid to offend those who see American slavery as “the worst thing that has ever happened in the history of the universe.”TM  On MSNBC, and in the pages of The Nation, one simply cannot be found to have even hinted that some other civilizational evil is as bad (or God forbid, worse!) than slavery.  (Did I mention that slavery is an utter moral abomination?)

Hayes more or less admits these constraints of political correctness:

“Comparisons to slavery are generally considered rhetorically out of bounds, and for good reason. We are walking on treacherous terrain.”

Rhetorically out of bounds?  We are talking about possible “global cataclysm” and you are worried about being rhetorically out of bounds?

For all that, Hayes is truly one of the good guys in this debate.  I am always mildly surprised that GE-owned MSNBC lets him say as much as he does on this subject.  Please read his otherwise superb and essential essay. 

And then begin thinking and planning for what you are going to do, personally, to burn less fossil fuel, support alternatives, and fight those who seek to maintain the status quo out of sheer greed. (I am looking at you, Koch brothers.)

Some suggestions, perhaps a bit snooty and presumptuous:  Get a bike or walk as much as possible – it’s good for you. Buy local when you can.  Consume less – you don’t need half the crap you waste your money on.  Turn off the god-damned TV – it is nothing but endless exhortations to consume.  Instead, read or converse with friends and family.  Or play an instrument.  Or just listen to one.

Oppose climate denialism.  It is the intellectual equivalent of Young Earth Creationism.

And apologize to your children.  Often.