Science Marches On

A few thoughts about the March for Science in Manhattan over the weekend seem to be in order. To get to the rally in time, from our little corner of New Jersey, we found ourselves on an early train. We arrived at 62nd Street and Central Park West to discover the march was beginning just outside of one of Trump’s unimpressive towers. The area for marchers was clearly marked off by barricades, but a woman walking her dogs, a resident of Trump’s tower, wandered in among the crowd. Like most Trump followers, she seemed clueless that there was an obvious way around the obstacles and had to be helped by the police. Seems to be a theme with 45—police are everywhere watching his assets. Meanwhile the hotel doormen from next door were asking for “Resist” paraphernalia and reminiscing about their shock when the boy next door received the nomination. The mood was jovial despite the spitting rain.

The speeches at the rally were mostly given by children ten and younger. The future teaching the past. As might be expected, the signs were clever, and some took considerable thought to figure out. A few, it seems, felt religion was to blame. Well, they’re probably right about that. One gets the sense that science and religion are like cats and dogs, and nobody has to guess which one’s identified with the cats. Still, the majority of the signs pointed out the benefits of science. Even scholars of religion use the scientific method, believe it or not. Like science, religion (as revealed by science) may be good for people. Who brings religion to a science rally?

I’ve always been a fan of science. Throughout school I learned a lot and did well in physics and chemistry, biology not so much (dissection was never my thing). I still read science and incorporate it into my thinking. Balance, however, suggests perhaps religion also be treated as not evil in and of itself. After all, it is evolved behavior. As the march progressed down Broadway, we passed a church that had a prominent banner reading “Prayer really does work,” or something along those lines. I’d seen enough clever signs already that morning to notice this contrarian voice. Then I wondered, why can’t science and religion seem to get along? Both can (but need not) make exclusive truth claims. What’s wrong with admitting that we just don’t know? Belief is involved in either case. No doubt science is important. I’ve always supported its study and always will. Is it, however, too much to believe that maybe religion can also enlighten, if understood for what it is—a human way of coping with an uncertain world? As science marches on, hopefully it will help us comprehend even the unmeasurable.

Happy World Book Day

In times of distress, as well as of joy, I turn to books. Since about November there have been more of the former than the latter, so I’m cheered that today is World Book Day. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has designates World Book Day to promote literacy internationally. If only the White House would pay a little more attention to the UN maybe the world situation would improve. In any case, books are always worth celebrating. At any given time I’ve got three or four book-reading projects going on simultaneously. Well, not literally simultaneously; I have books I read in the morning, different books for the bus ride, and books I read before bed. Often there are others scattered in there as well, such as books that I take with me in case I get unexpectedly delayed somewhere and want something to read. It’s a life full of books. It’s a wonderful life.

I can’t imagine enduring the mental vacuity that must come from not reading. It sounds like torture to me. Yes, I’ve occasionally been caught up in the action-packed episode of travel and adventure (or what passes for adventure for a guy like me). Hours spent with other people in locations not at home when there’s something to do every minute of the day. But then, when the fun’s over, I open a book. I read before bed even when I’m traveling, and since I’m an early riser I read before anyone else is awake. It’s a form of communion. Having access to the intelligent minds of others is a rare privilege that shouldn’t be scorned. World Book Day should be an international holiday.

Books, strictly speaking, didn’t necessarily originate as sacred texts. Very early in the process of writing, however, such holy documents began to appear. Civilization itself grew through the cultivation of writing. Bibles, Qur’ans, Books of Mormon—for all the troubles sacred texts may cause, they’re reminders of the importance of reading. And once reading starts, it’s impossible to stop. Reading is resistance to the Zeitgeist that’s haunting the politics of the day. Had voters been informed, it is absolutely certain, neither Brexit nor Trump would have happened. We need to read, and be seen reading. Ignorance is the final enemy to be defeated. Celebrate World Book Day. Wish people happy World Book Day. And for the sake of civilization itself, get caught reading.

Earth vs. the GOP

They used to call her “Mother Earth.” Now she’s simply a commodity to be liquidated into cash at the country club where rich white men play. That’s why I’m spending Earth Day on my third protest march of the year. Of all the things the Republican Party has done to show its true colors the clearest has been to participate in the destruction of the world we all share. There’s only one word that answers the question “why,” and it used to be considered one of the seven deadly sins. Greed. These acts of planetary terrorism are carried out by men who believe lining their own pockets is the highest possible good. Even moderate Republicans have locked in their goose step to keep in the good graces of madmen who want to cram as much lucre into their coffers as they can before they die. When the planet’s a smoldering ruin their grandchildren will surely thank them.

Son, behold thy mother.

Don’t knock tree-hugging unless you’ve tried it. Trees tend to be much better company than Republicans anyway. Never have I had the feeling that I’ve had to celebrate Earth Day with such a blend of angst and anger. That one that your teacher always warned you about—the one who ruins it for everyone—now has control of the country. Immediately he insisted we start dumping coal waste into our streams and rivers. Burn more coal so he can play a few more holes with what passes for a clean conscience in a filthy soul. I march because I must. We can’t sit silently and let the darkness fall. If you can see through the coal dust you’ll understand that the planet weeps. It’s her that we celebrate today.

Matricide used to be considered a heinous crime. Now it’s just good business. If we were an honest species we’d admit it’s been bad business from the beginning. We’d never elect a businessman with inherently conflicting interests to the White House. The goods of the few outweighs the good of the many. The commodification of nature is the worst kind of unnatural selection. Here science and common sense agree—in order to survive we must preserve our planet. I confess that I’m unapologetic in this regard. So, although I’ll be spending this Earth Day in the artificial environment of Manhattan, marching in the cause of science, and if push comes to shove I’ll be the one hugging a tree.

Beautiful Beast

Like most kids in America I grew up with some form of Disney. We couldn’t afford to see many movies, but those we could often originated from the acknowledged master of childhood viewing. When I became a parent I naturally turned to Disney as one of the components of constructing a happy environment for my own child. Who doesn’t want better for their children then they had themselves? This was, however, in the days of VHS tapes. Disney frustrated more than one attempt to see a movie that was currently “locked in the vault”—a marketing tool used to glut the already overflowing coffers on demand. The heart wants what the heart wants, as the saying goes, and you knew that if you didn’t purchase the movie when it was available you might never see it again. Regardless, Disney does produce memorable work.

One movie that we missed until the vault unlocked was the animated Beauty and the Beast. We didn’t want to send the message that girls should be the captives of men, but Belle is a strong character, and we eventually realized that withholding much of childhood culture would isolate our daughter from what everyone else knew. Old habits die hard, as Disney knows. Our daughter is now grown, but a new Beauty and the Beast is in theaters and what was once vault material has softened into nostalgia. Recently I’ve begun to notice differences between original films and remakes when it comes to religion. In the new Beauty and the Beast there are only a couple of such instances, but they did make me wonder. In the opening sequence, as Belle is returning her book to Père Robert, a large crucifix stands in the background. Indeed, the camera keeps Belle off-center so as to make the cross obvious in the scene. Clergy and books make sense, and, of course, Belle offers to sacrifice herself for her father—a biblical trope.

When Gaston riles up the angry villagers, Père Robert is once more shown, objecting to the growing violence. Then, unexpectedly, as the castle transforms at the end, a gold finial of Michael the archangel slaying the dragon appears atop one of the towers. Again the symbolism is clear as the beast has allowed Gaston to escape, but the 45-inspired antagonist, unwilling to let grudges go, shoots the beast anyway. As the movie opens the famous Disney castle shows itself topped with that same finial. Is there a deeper message here? It’s just a children’s movie after all. Yet Père Robert is black and there are two interracial couples in the film. We should be, if I’m viewing this correctly, entering into a more tolerant and accepting world. Prejudice has no place in fantasy. Or reality. There are dragons to be slain here. If there is a deeper conscience at play it’s likely only to be found locked away in a vault.

Stamp Collecting

Like most awkwardly shy children, I used to collect stamps. Even today a bright one will catch my attention although it’s been years since I actively sought them in a household not really important enough to receive much more than bills. To make up for not getting our own mail, I’d go to the local hobby store (not Hobby Lobby, thank you) and get those cheap packages of cancelled stamps from countries I’d never heard of. Using special strips designed for introverts, I’d mount them carefully over their black-and-white image in my stamp album. Looking at those carefully engraved pieces of miniature art was a way of traveling for a kid in a lower-income family who considered a trip to Pittsburgh the big time. I’ll still save a flashy stamp although the album was lost decades ago.

The other day I saw a Liberty forever stamp. Looking at the headlines, I think the stamp has been lying to me. The idea of liberty doesn’t seem to involve using “Nuclear Options” to stack the Supreme Court after illegally refusing a hearing for the lawful candidate our last true president nominated. Liberty doesn’t involve beefing up security so we can deport those we normally exploit and then firing our missiles at those we personally dislike. No, my philatelic informant seems to be sadly misinformed. Nothing is forever. Indeed, some of the stamps I purchased before the price went down are now more expensive than they need to be. We can always use the surplus to buy more missiles, I suppose. But wait, the price has gone back up! All reprieves are short-lived.

As I daily watch our government dismantle the freedoms we’ve so carefully built over the past two centuries, I glance at my liberty forever stamp and wonder what went wrong. When did hatred of others trump the desire to be free? When did the slimmest of crooked margins become a mandate? When did braggadocio become a sufficient substitute for intelligence? When you place “forever” as the value of a stamp, you no longer know just what it’s costing you. I was born in the age of the 4-cent stamp. Since 1885 the price had never gone over 3 cents. Stamps were more honest in those days. They didn’t say “forever” on them since, it seems, we all knew that nothing lasts forever. Not even liberty.

Witching Well

Salem, Massachusetts, brings to mind images of intolerance and a culture ossified in superstition. That’s not really fair, of course. Even in the late seventeenth century the people of Salem were living during the Enlightenment and they understood enough of science to question the legitimacy of the spectral evidence of the kind that would stand in Washington DC today. With twenty direct deaths due to witchcraft accusations and many more lives disrupted or ruined, this tragic episode has perhaps unfairly cast New Englanders as credulous rubes willing to believe just about anything. If you’re like most of us, you may not be aware that other witch trials were going on around that same time period, but with differing results. Richard Godbeer’s Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692 recounts the events in Fairfield County, Connecticut in Salem’s haunted year. As in Salem a young woman began experiencing fits. Medical explanations—rudimentary as they were—didn’t explain everything away, so supernatural causation was considered. Witchcraft was suspected. Accusations were made.

In the case of Kate Branch of Stamford, as Godbeer shows, Connecticut was learning the lessons of Salem in real time. The belief in witches and witchcraft was just as real, but realizing the bad press their northern neighbors were receiving, the Connecticut Yankees insisted on more stringent evidence. Indeed, judges dismissed the jury to reconsider their decision and even overturned it based on reason. These were people who knew that human lives were at stake. They also knew that Salem was doing nothing to vindicate the cause of either Puritans or justice. We don’t hear about it so much, I suspect, because those in power did the right thing. Given present circumstances, reading about Americans who actually learned from history is encouraging. We read daily of a president woefully unaware (and proudly so) of his own nation’s history. What could possibly go wrong?

Witch hunts are sad miscarriages of justice in the best of times. In days when minorities are being scapegoated for the problems capitalism itself causes, we have to wonder if, apart from those in contemporary Connecticut, we’ve learned anything from Salem at all. Wasn’t it clear that targeting women—many of them social outsiders, and pretty much all of them recently descended from immigrants—was in itself just plain wrong? We pride ourselves on having outgrown belief in magic, and yet we go into that voting booth without a rational reason to elect a self-evident bigot and abuser of women and do it anyway. Reading, knowing where we’ve come from, prevents all kinds of tragedies. And this isn’t alternative factual history. It happened in the very shadow of the calamity of Salem, Massachusetts.

Russian Watchtower

From time to time I’ve good-naturedly poked fun at the Watch Tower Society members who used to visit with some frequency. I don’t belittle anyone’s belief system, however. Believers of any faith are generally sincere and certainly entitled to follow the dictates of their own consciences and reasoning. Still, as John Cale sings, “nothing frightens me more, than religion at my door.” Some of us prefer to keep our religious preferences private, while musing publicly about the wider world of religious diversity. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have come to mind again because of an article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger my wife clipped out for me. According to Amanda Erickson, writing for the Washington Post, Russia has now classified the Witnesses as religious extremists. She points out the irony since the Watch Tower Society is officially a pacifist group, opposed to any violence. It’s difficult to radicalize a pacifist.

I’m not at home enough any more to be here when the Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by. I know they still come because I can see their tracts. There is a Witness who occasionally stands outside my gate at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. He stands, patiently smiling, next to the entrance holding up the Watchtower while anxious commuters and day trippers give him nary a glance. He seems like a nice guy to me. Always neatly dressed. One day I noticed him commenting to a New Jersey Transit employee that a particular denizen of the Post Authority was acting oddly. He was right, and, as a daily user of that facility, I know it takes quite a lot to earn that kind of notice. Ports, after all, bring in many with diverse outlooks on life.

What’s behind the Russian rage against the “extremist activities” of a peace-loving sect? I suspect the real problem has to do with the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are so typically American. And, like the Mormons, a fairly successful New Religious Movement. Religions, it seems, do grow a bit stale with age. Once in a while, something new comes along and revitalizes old systems of belief. Russia, however, is not the Port Authority. There is a repression there that is the envy of New Jersey Transit and every other carrier, I’m sure. Right, United? If only people would conform. Wouldn’t we all be happier if everyone else just believed like us? I’m not sure that history concurs on that point. Perhaps the safest alternative is to remain private. You don’t, however, grow a religion that way. If Russia wishes to inherit these States, they’ll need to learn a bit about the joys of religious diversity. Pacifism is a risk you have to take.