Monthly Archives: September 2011

Eat, Love, Eat

Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma has been on my “to read” pile for some time. I finally finished with it this week. As a vegetarian, I really didn’t need convincing that raising other beings with feelings and some intelligence for the purpose of eating them involves dilemmas. Pollan is not a vegetarian and makes the best case I’ve ever read for justifying his position. Still, I personally can’t face being the reason animals must die for my own gain. I know this is a stance fraught with difficulties. I’ve often mused that if I could get by without even eating plants, I would. I just hate to inconvenience anyone, or anything, else. But that’s not what I want to discuss. Pollan spends the first part of his book discussing corn, or maize. I hadn’t realized what a versatile crop it is, nor how prolific. The difficulty is that it is so good at what it does that it is bankrupting the farming industry. Government subsidies make corn growing the only way that big farmers can get ahead while nearly driving them broke at the same time. (It takes Pollan chapters to explain this, so I’ll need to refer you to the source on this one.) His conclusion: the free market simply does not work for food production.

I’ve long believed that the problems with our economy come from a decidedly “one size fits all” mentality. The free market rewards those who climb over others without that gnawing sense of guilt that prevents me from eating meat. Once you have lots, you only want more. No one ends up satisfied. Okay, so we’ll let Wall Street play its game. Higher education is in crisis because, like farming, the free market model simply does not apply. Guys like me (and plenty of gals too) do not spend years of our lives earning doctorates under the delusion that we’ll get rich. Many of us are idealists who just won’t grow up. All we want is to contribute to the collective knowledge of the human race and make a reasonable living doing it. Then the free market comes and whispers into university presidents’ ears that they should be making six or seven figure salaries. They should have limitless expense accounts. Universities should be all about “branding” with corporate style logos and money-sieves called sports teams. Somewhere along the way they forgot that they need teachers too. Some very prominent universities in the United States now have 70 percent of their classes taught by adjuncts. The system is simply not working.

One of the strangest anomalies out of all of this is that Christianity, the religion started by a guy who said the rich could not enter heaven unless they gave everything away, has crawled into bed with the free market. Enthusiastically. For many people to vote with conscience is to vote for an inherently unfair system that must, by its very design, consume all others. Survival of the fattest. I’m no economist, but I am certain that many other industries have gone the way of the T-rex because they simply didn’t fit the model of unbridled gain. Education is one, and the asteroid is already about to hit. What bothers me the most is that agriculture is another. Pollan ended up scaring me more than any horror flick. Our farming industry, right here in the best fed country on earth, is very, very frail. As long as we’re converting everything to the greed-based system, we should make money edible. After the asteroid strikes, during that long, dim winter, it will be the only thing left on the planet in abundance.

Homeland Security

I work just two blocks from the United Nations building in New York. While out to grab my lunch yesterday I was engulfed in a peaceful, if vocal demonstration. Many people were standing along Third Avenue with a perplexed look, myself included, I suppose, when a protestor from a great, surging throng thrust a paper into my hand. Headlined “Bring Justice to Guinea,” the paper outlined the brutalities being perpetrated against the Fulani in Guinea. I have to confess to being ignorant of most of the world’s trouble spots. In a society that is relatively free, we’ve been struggling to attain any real form of social equity without success for over two and a half centuries. When I read of the atrocities against the Fulani outlined on the flier, I wondered why I’d not heard of them before. I didn’t have to wonder long, however, because many of us have not received any real education beyond what has happened in the developed world. I decided to learn what I could in the brief moments after the commute home and before bed time. I discovered that the Fulani were once an empire in West Africa. Today in Guinea, according to the information at hand, they are subject to truly horrific treatment. The flier asks, “Would you stop a genocide if you saw it coming?”

I honestly cannot know what lies behind the suffering of the Fulani in Guinea, but historically genocides have either been about, or excused as being about, proper religious belief. One of the saddest commentaries on religion is that even in varieties of religion that claim peaceable teachings and human welfare, violence frequently breaks out. The distrust of the other runs very deep, and if the clearest dividing line is religion, so be it. The very nature of our brains causes us to divide the world about us into categories. The problem with categories is that they are often mental constructs that do not correlate to the reality they attempt to describe. Take people, for example. Does anyone really ever stick to a category or a label in all ways and at all times? Are we not prone to inconsistency and evolution? To use a label as an excuse to harm another is rightly called a hate crime today. Unfortunately, hate crimes are very common, if illegal in some places.

Homeland of the human race.

Difference may be perceived at least two ways—we might respond to it negatively or positively. As a culture, all but the extremist groups seem to have accepted that people are people and deserve equal treatment. On the religious front, however, we lag far behind. Religions often make universal claims, and if a universal claim is truly universal no variation can be accepted. Our deep-seated distrust of those different from ourselves often finds its release in the guise of religion. No other human institution claims a divine prerogative for abusing others. Some people would admit that their animosity stems from basic human motives. If they act upon it, they wind up imprisoned. If, on the other hand, it becomes a crusade with divine standards proudly waving, the perpetrator is more likely to run for public office than to be sequestered in jail. Religion thrives on double standards. Until we find an objective way to assess them (those who have ears, let them hear) we will find ourselves dealing with unreasonable religious demands until our genocidal distrust spreads to the entire remainder of the world.

Timing God

Two weeks in a row now God has made it into the pages of Time magazine. You’d think he was Rick Perry or something (no insult to God intended). This week’s Commentary, written by Harvard physicist Lisa Randall, argues for the importance of believing what science forces us to conclude. The world is warming up, ice caps are melting, and those in low-lying regions are in hot water. I am fully in agreement with her sentiments, but it’s the practicality that bothers me. Not the practicality of listening to science—that’s just common sense—but the practicality of doing so in a world where religion reigns. Despite cries of oppression and suppression and repression—just about any pression you choose—religions dominate the world. What particular brand you prefer does not matter; the fact is most people are religious. Randall believes that religion and science must learn to live together. Her problem is that she is looking at it rationally.

Science has given us excellent leads on tracing the origins of religion itself. Between psychology, anthropology, sociology, and biology we’ve got a fair idea how religion came about. The same brain that shows us the way, however, has evolved with religion still intact. In short, it has learned to accept the unlearned. With our brains acting like dogs chasing their own tails, is it any wonder that as a species we are confused? We see only what we choose to. In the great, artificial landscape of Manhattan many very wealthy people traverse the streets. Every day I see suits that would cost my entire paycheck casually strolling up Madison Avenue. I also see the beggars in the same doorways day after day, blending in with their surroundings. The solution of choice is to pretend they aren’t there, to not accept the evidence of our eyes. The wealthy have a knack for it, it seems. And when they work their way into politics their vision doesn’t improve much.

The problem that Randall points out is very real and deadly serious. Trouble is, those who pretend not to see are among the best actors on the planet. Faced with incontrovertible evidence the rational mind has no choice but to acquiesce. Religion, however, offers the perfect escape clause. If global warming discomforts you too much try fanning yourself with a Bible. Soon the excess degrees will simply melt away. And when the religious enemies of science find themselves sitting on the ocean floor like the victims of the Titanic, they too will have the satisfaction of knowing that they were privileged above all people for the time they had on earth. Everyone wins. The insatiably greedy and the abjectly poor both share a spot on an overheated planet. And if the pattern holds true we’ll evolve eyes to read under water, along with our gills, so that we can continue to read our waterlogged Bibles to find out what’s coming next.

Iceberg? What iceberg?

Dark Materials

After three years we have finally finished Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The Golden Compass, a fantastic story made into a very disappointing movie, followed the adventures of Lyra as she struggled against the insidious designs of the Magisterium, Pullman’s not-so-subtle code for the church. The story picked up again when Lyra met Will in The Subtle Knife and revolves back to the Garden of Eden in The Amber Spyglass. It becomes clear early in the book that Lyra is a type of Eve, about to open a Pandora’s box for the entire universe. Along the way Metatron and the symbols of the old religion, including God, die. Detractors like to hurl accusations of atheism at the author, although Pullman tends to call himself agnostic. Whatever label is pasted to him, the fact is the message of the trilogy is profoundly in keeping with what is purported to be the message of Jesus. Not to put too fine a point on it, the message is “Christian.”

Of course, these days that word has to be qualified. “Christian” has been co-opted by so many special interests theologies that its vagueness is useful for little more than winning presidential elections. Part of the difficulty begins with the fact that we don’t have any objective way to assess what Jesus actually said. The earliest canonical Gospel, Mark, was written some three decades after the events that it recounts. There can be no doubt that Matthew and Luke borrowed heavily from Mark while John, written much later, blazed his own trail. Some of the statements attributed to Jesus in these variant accounts differ, but the basic idea seems to be: love others, try not to harm each other, and be willing to be the victim once in a while. These precepts permeate that story of Lyra and Will as they flee from an institutionalized church that seeks to destroy them. Yes, the parable is transparent here and even today many would-be rulers understand the power in the blood of the lamb. Accusations of someone being non-Christian can turn a red tide against them.

Ironically, today “Christian” often has the connotation of intolerance and lack of forgiveness. We see the wealthy and powerful adopting the rhetoric when it suits their purposes but refusing to live by its principles when the poor reveal their underprivileged faces. Taking Jesus out of context they like to say, “the poor will always be with you.” As if Jesus never spoke a harsh word to the wealthy. Something that Pullman makes abundantly clear is that power corrupts. The church in his books is not evil, but corrupt. It is too powerful for its own good. Above all, the books are a tale of growing up. Lyra realizes the danger that the Magisterium poses, and fights it with the conviction of the young. She learns to love and liberates the dead. She learns the pain of loss. Indeed, her sacrifice is for the salvation of the universe. Sounds like something Jesus might have approved of—when he wasn’t busy lining the pockets of the wealthy, that is.

Lead us not into Dominion

Christian dominionists emulate the Roman Empire, it seems. The Viewpoint in last week’s Time magazine, entitled “In God We Trust,” points out several of the objectives of the dominionist camp. Taking their cue from a decidedly modern and western understanding of Genesis 1, this sect believes the human control over nature to be a divine mandate in which our species dominates the world, with divine approval. As Jon Meacham points out, that dominion does not end at other animal species, but includes control of the “non-Christian” as defined by their own standard. This non-negotiable “Christianity” is a religion guided by utter selfishness and self-absorption. So thorough is this directive that those indoctrinated in it cannot recognize Christians that do not share its perspective as part of the same dogmatic species. It is a frightening religious perspective for a nation founded on the principle of religious freedom.

Rehearsing the rhetoric from Rick Perry’s “the Response” rally, Meacham rightly points out that when dominionists quote the Bible it is most important to note what the Bible does not say. Herein lies the very soul of the movement—filling in the void where God does not talk with human desires and ambitions. As any good marketer knows, however, packaging can sell the product. Introduce a rhetoric that claims to be biblical to a nation where most people have never read the Bible and smell the recipe for success. People want to believe, even if what they think they believe is not what it claims to be. Christianity is claimed by so many vastly differing factions as to have been drained of its meaning. This is the danger in the game of injecting religion into politics. Surely the Perrys and Palins and Bachmanns know what they believe, but they do not say it aloud, for their Christianity does not coincide with the various forms of the religion advocated by the churches historically bearing the torch of Christ’s teachings, insofar as they might be determined.

Dominionism is nothing new. Even the most pristine believer must see that Constantine had more than a warm fuzzy feeling in his heart when he adopted a foreign religion and fed it to his empire. No, Christianity was an effective, non-violent means of control as well as a way of achieving life after death. Rome was nothing without dominion. The parallels with the United States have been noted by analysts time and again. As we watch the posturing of political candidates wearing some form of their faith on their sleeves, the unsuspecting never question what might be up those sleeves. It is fairly certain that when the parties sit down at the table and the cards are dealt, it won’t be Bibles that we find scattered there. This is not a kingdom of God’s making. When dominionists take over all others must scan the horizon for the advent of the Visigoths who will not be dominated.

Brain Death

The computer revolution has spoiled some of the wonder associated with old films that had been formerly staged with cheap props and poorly written dialogue. (Well, computer literacy has not always improved the dialogue, in all fairness.) Nowhere is this more apparent in the science-fiction/horror genre where CGI has made the impossible pedestrian. There’s little we’re not capable of believing. Back in the fifties and early sixties when even color film often went over budget, some real groaners emerged. Over the weekend I watched one of the movies at the front of the class for poorly executed. The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, however, is experiencing something of a renaissance with a stage musical coming out next month in New York based on this campy classic. Most horror movies don’t really scare me much, probably due to overexposure. The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, however, creeped me out in an unexpected way. Daring toward exploitation status (the movie was shot in 1959 but not released for three years), the “protagonist” is Dr. Bill Cortner who specializes in transplants. When his girlfriend Jan is decapitated in an automobile accident, Cortner keeps her head alive while seeking a body onto which to transplant it. Ogling over girls in a strip club, or even stalking them from his car while they’re walking down the street, the doctor imagines what features he’d like grafted onto his girlfriend’s still living head.

Campy to a nearly fatal degree, the film is nevertheless disturbing on many levels simultaneously. Although I was born the year the film was released, I was raised to consider both genders as equal. The unadulterated sexism of a man grocery shopping for the body he wants stuck onto his girlfriend’s head was so repellant that I reached for the remote more than once. A bit of overwritten dialogue, however, stayed my hand. Kurt, the obligatorily deformed lab assistant, while arguing with Cortner declares that the human soul is part in the head, yet partially in the heart. By placing a head on another body, the soul is fractured. Now here was a piece of theological finesse unexpected in such a poverty of prose. The question of the location of the soul has long troubled theologians, an inquiry complicated by the growth of biological science. Heart transplants are common today, but the resulting people are in no way monstrous. The amorphous soul, theologians aver, is non-material yet resides within a specific biological entity. Some have even suggested that you can capture its departure by weighing a dying body at the moment of death. Others suggest no soul exists—it is a mere projection of consciousness. Cortner, however, once his eyes have opened the possibilities, can’t look back.

Our social consciousness has grown considerably since the late 1950s. Politicians and Tea Partiers who hold that era up as a paradigm of sanity do so at the price of half the human race. On the outside with the oiled hair, polished shoes, spotless automobiles, society seemed clean cut and orderly. Women, however, were relegated to inferior roles while men made the rules. Life was less complicated then. We knew who was in charge. Or did we? As a species that has evolved via sexual reproduction, it has taken us surprisingly long to realize that both genders are essential to humanity. We still tolerate gender disparity in pay scales, often shored up with the tired excuse that pregnancy and childbirth disrupt “productivity” and therefore female efforts are worth less than male—never changing due to biology. Such trumped-up excuses ring as hollow as a head without a body. Many Neo-Cons will even use the Bible to support it. John Q. Public (always male, please note), they insist, yearns for the “good old days.” The days they desire, however, were days of cheap horror and unrealistic dialogue. If they can watch The Brain that Wouldn’t Die without flinching, our future is bleak indeed.

Springing up Moses

“Springsteen’s work and person invite analysis in terms of the biblical themes of exodus and promised land,” so wrote Kate McCarthy in “Deliver Me from Nowhere: Bruce Springsteen and the Myth of the American Promised Land” (conveniently in a Routledge title, God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture, second edition, 2011). Having just finished Bruce Feiler’s America’s Prophet (not Routledge), I am attuned to the exodus theme at the moment. Feeling an unaccountable, personal connection to the other Bruce (Springsteen), I have felt the sense of exile in his songs since I was a teenager. I had no idea who Springsteen was when “Born to Run” made it to the charts. Living in a nowhere town at the time (population less than 1000), I felt the burning need for a personal exodus that eventually landed me in the largest city in the country. But still the sense of exile remains.

Lest readers be too confused, it might be politic to point out that the biblical concept of exodus likely had its origins in the Exile. Without rehearsing too much history, the Babylonian Empire, under Nebuchadrezzar, conquered Jerusalem in either 587 or 586 BCE, leading to the deportation of a significant number of Judahites who would become, over a generation, the “Jews.” These people were exiles, forced to live under the watchful eye of a political overlord with whom they shared only the most basic of heritages. Their religions had grown apart over the centuries, and as the Jews began to think back on their homeland, the exodus came to mind. Archaeological evidence for an exodus of biblical proportions (literally) does not exist. Why, then, the story of the exodus? Did not the desire to return home involve crossing the desert, with a divinely appointed leader? One who carried the law (Torah) with him? When Ezra led returnees home in the fifth/fourth century, he had the Torah in hand. Like Moses, he led the people out of bondage under the Persian plan. Exile and exodus are twin children of oppressive regimes.

So, how do ancient desert wanderers come into the orbit of a very damp New Jersey, and in particular, it’s arguably most famous resident? Alienation is home. Very few teenagers don’t understand this. As we attempt to integrate them into adult life, something vital, essential, is left behind. Consider all the long-haired artists of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s who still perform, now shorn to conservative acceptability and sometimes churning out very conventional songs. The fire has gone out. It is difficult to escape exile when you carry it with you. That’s something I think Bruce understands. His look may have changed, but his message has not. America has always been a haven for exiles. Simply because an exile moves into a new setting, however, does not mean that the promised land has been reached. As McCarthy seems to be saying, and as I have often felt, the promised land disappoints. The seeking is what must persist. America may have its Moeses, but it will find, from atop Nebo, that the path is where your feet already are.

Look carefully at your prophets!