Monthly Archives: February 2011

Devil’s Ethics

It’s that time of year when state employees (even part-timers) are subjected to ethics training. Each year the irony of the situation becomes thicker and more viscous. You see, those of us who have part-time engagements are often on the receiving end of ethical violations, and we know better than to make ripples since we are disposable. I’ll say nothing of the well-known (almost infamous) ethical history of New Jersey, but today’s headlines suggest an even higher power when it comes to unethical actions. An Associated Press story bears the headline “U.S. biological horror stories brought before commission.” The report concerns official United States studies conducted on its own citizens by exposing people to and deliberately infecting them with various diseases. This may come as a shock to many, but already in the 1980s it was documented that America’s guinea pigs were its own citizens.

Leonard Cole’s Clouds of Secrecy: The Army’s Germ Warfare Tests over Populated Areas, published in 1988, exposed many documented incidents of biological agent testing on non-consenting, and unsuspecting citizens. The testing was done in the name of national security (for which you may now be groped by any TSA official whose hands are not otherwise engaged). As this report demonstrates, our own government has viewed those of us not in positions of power as manipulable, expendable, and somehow less valuable than those elected by schemes they devise themselves. Democracy, it seems, is not free.

We are expected to heave a sigh of relief (come on now, everybody, it’s okay) since the history exposed is between 40 and 80 years old. That’s ancient history, right? An industrial-military complex today would never violate the rights of citizens. At least not officially. At least not as long as the Freedom of Information Act ensures that citizens have access to records (several years after the fact), and as long as it is not deemed a matter of national security. The color of your underwear and the shape of what is beneath are government assets. Also, so is your immune system. Otherwise you are free to live your life uninhibited. Unless, that is, you are a state employee with an extensive ethics background. Excuse me, but I’ve got to get back to my ethics training.

Sinking Ships

In anticipation of the Academy Awards, last night I revisited Titanic. Since I tend to view art from the perspective of metaphor, I was once again struck by how our society resembles that great ship. In particular, with the current turmoil between plutocratic governors and the average citizens who’ve elected them, the brazen upper-class passengers on the Titanic embody the interests of the self-interested. When Captain Smith leads the privileged first class travelers in “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” in their own private chapel unsullied by the second and third class detritus, the line “for those in peril on the sea” resonates with the Prosperity Gospel. The well-to-do are that way through no fault of their own; God loves them more and made them better off than the rest. And when icebergs float, those unloved by their creator sink.

Over the past few weeks, in the shadow of events unfolding in Egypt and even Libya, we have seen the assertions of the aristocratic governor class assailing the workers. Attempting to make unions illegal, reducing the services offered to the poor, attempting to shorten the lives of the elderly by withdrawing medical programs (let us not ask how much profit pharmaceutical companies make for they are dearly loved by their father who art in Fort Knox), they know the rush of divine power. Indeed, populations are so complacent that as long as we have our MTV (substitute here your favorite media narcotic), that we shrug our collective shoulders and say “whatever.”

Perhaps it is not the metaphor James Cameron intended, but it is the working class Jack who sinks to an icy grave while the privileged but bankrupt Rose remains afloat. Our sympathies are with the young lady abused by privileged society, but the lifeboats should best remain half empty to preserve the upper crust rather than risk all going down together. After all, the Bible informs us that bread cast upon the waters comes back. And those who take up more than their fair share of the lifeboats wager that when that bread comes back it will be docile and subdued after its ordeals in the North Atlantic, and the Carpathia will come and restore society to its proper order. And so perhaps it is only a metaphor that more than a decade later the shoo-in for the Academy Awards is a film about the royal family. I think I see an iceberg ahead.

This is only a metaphor

Be Neith It All

Goddesses have lately been on my mind. Both an occupational hazard and an avocation, study of the divine feminine deflects the trajectory that traditional monotheism traced and places us in the realm of the empowered female. This week my mythology class considered Athena, perhaps the truest embodiment of divinity in classical Greece. I regularly mention that in the ancient world even Plato suggests a connection between Athena and the Egyptian goddess Neith, one of the most ancient of the gods of Lower Egypt. When a friend coincidentally emailed a question about Neith, I realized the goddess was calling out for a blog post.

Neith is difficult to define partially because of the nature of Egyptian religion and its evidence, but also because of her great antiquity. She is a predynastic goddess, dating from before the founding of a united Egypt (back in the days when Egypt was united). She is represented by symbols of both weaponry and weaving (thus associated with Athena), and since she is so ancient, she became a creator. She is occasionally regarded as the mother of the gods. A question that naturally arises for all creators is from whence did they come – the classic chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. Mythology offers a number of options for self-generation, but most often creator gods simply bring themselves into being without many details being supplied. After all, no one was there to witness the miracle of the first birth.

Like most Egyptian creator gods, Neith represented preexistence and creation. She is occasionally androgynous – a necessary precondition for being an initial creator – and is said, by Proclus to have claimed, “I am all that has been and is and will be.” In short, nobody knows where she originated. Like many pre-biblical gods, Neith practices creation by speaking aspects of the world into existence, a technique called creation by divine fiat. This is something that Yahweh will later borrow in Israel. Although the Egyptian myths do not directly address the coming into being of Neith, she represents what every observer of nature knows: monotheism loses an essential element when it supplants one gender instead of embracing both.

Carrie That Weight

When it comes to keeping up with the classics, I have a lot of catch-up to do. This even applies to classic horror films – I’ve been a fan since college but slipped out of the groove for a decade or so and now I’m working my way back in. Recently I watched Carrie for the first time. Considering that it came out in 1976 (I still remember the original trailers), it has held up remarkably well. The story of the child struggling to become an adult against the wishes of an overweening parent never goes out of style. In keeping with a long-term theme on this blog, the religious element was fully represented as well.

The portrayal of Margaret White as a religious fanatic included incongruous elements that had clearly been selected for their ability to set a creepy mood. The statue of St. Sebastian with an abdomen full of arrows seems a strange fit for a Christianity that is apparently Protestant. Mrs. White’s veneration of the Bible settles better in a Protestant milieu than the Catholic background of director Brian De Palma. The decidedly unnerving scene where Carrie returns home from the prom to find hundreds of candles burning recalls a more Popish atmosphere, but the prayer closet resonates better with reformed traditions. This unholy mix creates a disturbing lack of specificity, as if religion itself is the danger.

Writers and movie-makers attempting to scare audiences have long drawn on the stock character of the over-zealous religious believer. One reason may be the lack of understanding such characters demonstrate towards those who do not share their views. While it would be comforting to suggest that this is a mere caricature, experience unfortunately belies this assertion. Religions around the world all have adherents who brook no rivals and claim victory only in convert manifests or body counts. Truly classic horror films draw their power from a deep honesty. And many people are honestly afraid.

Skullduggery

Perhaps it’s just what I deserve for reading Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, or maybe it is just one of the perks of living in New Jersey. On the front page of today’s New Jersey Star-Ledger is a story of grave robbery. Two recent graves, one eerily reminiscent of King’s novel, have been plundered for what officials are calling a “non-traditional religious practice.” If the locally popular magazine Weird NJ is to be believed, the state hosts many religious groups that fall into the non-traditional category. This is a predictable by-product of religious freedom; some people find religious fulfillment in idiosyncratic rituals. And all religions are concerned about death.

“Some religious sects use human remains in ceremonies,” the journalists state matter-of-factly. The concept has an ancient pedigree, even in orthodox varieties of religion. The macabre practice of keeping a bone, or occasionally a whole body, of a saint for veneration is cut from the same cloth. In King’s novel, the darker side of resurrection is explored. We miss our dead, but do we really want them back here with us? The use of human bones is disturbing because it suggests the rest and sanctity of the dead has been violated. Perhaps a Halloweenish horde of restless deceased will be unbound among us. We prefer our dead to be left in peace.

Perhaps it is that lives filled with the turmoil of our frenetic scramble to stay ahead of tragedy look forward to death’s eternal slumber. Anything that suggests the dead have been disturbed sends ripples through the psyche of the living. While visiting an ancestral plot some years ago, I discovered that vandals had tipped over the tombstone where my great-grandfather and several great uncles rested. No caretaker was on duty at the remote cemetery, so I found the address and mailed a request to have the stone set back in place. The image of that fallen stone distressed me for several days. Those who rob graves likely do not take the distress of family into account – their religion requires human remains and we attach great significance to the inert matter that used to be one of us. It is an impasse. Religions make demands and those who get in the way, either living or dead, often end up violated.

Even the dead mourn

Origins of Evil

The Bible might have benefited from a good editor. The final product is a world classic, of course, but contemporary people with their busy lives prefer straight and simple answers. These, often, the Bible refuses to yield. During a discussion of prophecy in class the other night the question of the origin of evil arose. I incidentally made reference to Isaiah 45.7 where God casually drops the line, “Forming light and creating darkness, making peace and creating evil, I am Yahweh making all this.” Many English translations attempt to mask the bald use of ra‘ “evil,” in this passage with nicer words such as “woe” or “calamity.” As I explained to my students, however, in a truly monotheistic system all fingers must point the same way for the ultimate responsibility. In this passage of Isaiah, Yahweh is presented as causing evil.

Now the editing of the Bible was never undertaken with the intention of creating uniformity, despite the railing of Fundamentalists. There are plentiful internal inconsistencies and disagreements. We should expect no less of a book written over a period of about a thousand years by several different writers grappling with life’s big questions. Inevitably students ask about the Garden of Eden. Genesis 2.17 has Yahweh state that newly created people must not eat of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil (ra‘).” Here the evil grows on a tree. Who planted that tree? It’s like blatantly laying the keys before your teenager and saying, “now don’t take the car.” Who is the source of that tree? (And, less frequently noted, the eating of the fruit in Genesis 3 is never called “sin.”)

The quintessential problem with a compilation is lack of uniformity. This did not bother ancient people as much as it does modern Fundamentalists. One reason is that many people equate the Bible’s value with it being a book that has all the answers from a single viewpoint. This the Bible lacks. According to the Bible there are various sources of evil. According to a strict monotheism (late in the Hebrew Bible) there can only be one. Enter the devil. To save the goodness of God a Zoroastrian anti-God had to be introduced. But the devil must stand in line to make his patent claim on evil.

Vindication

Back in the summer of 2009, I chose the name of this blog on a whim. Relatives had been encouraging me to provide a platform for podcasts and the occasional post and asked me what I would call such a blog. The pun of sects and violence initially drew some good humored interest, but there was a serious subtext beneath the choice. Nature has now published an article declaring that violence and sex are related. (Sects and violence is a no-brainer; just look at the newspaper.) The connection has been established satisfactorily only in the brains of mice so far, but what is the real difference between mice and men?

Yes, men. The studies focus on the male brain, that organ that continues to confound those of us who daily try to use one. Certain circuits in the mouse hypothalamus trigger either a violent or loving response when stimulated certain ways. Aggression is almost an automatic response. My mind tied this in with the Singularity article in last week’s Time. As we race forward with technological mergers between artificial intelligence and the human machine, do we really understand what that brain is that we are attempting to emulate electronically? Biology, according to many theorists, does not bow to the rules of reductionism. What happens when the violence of natural circuits (fight or flight) kick in with titanium feet?

I commented on a friend’s post when he cited the Singularity article in Time. Others responded to my remarks suggesting I did not take the reality of this seriously enough. Those who are familiar with Sects and Violence in the Ancient World will have no such questions. The minds that have given us both gods and guns are machines that can not be replicated precisely. Their function is to keep a degenerating biological mass alive. Electronic brains with replaceable parts (think Wall-e) have no such concerns. The missing limb syndrome is a very human response that is well recognized by those who understand the human psyche. And that psyche, it seems, is ready to fight as long as it is properly stimulated.

A boy's eye-view of the world