Dairy King

In the way that only social pundits can generate stereotypes, people born between 1979 and 1994 are called “the entitlement generation.” Large scale social attitudes, it is alleged, set an almost unbreakable Zeitgeist that defines us neatly so that we can be made easier to handle. Obviously I don’t fit into that generation, but as I watch the super-rich—often old enough to know better—claiming that they shouldn’t pay taxes because they do such good for society simply by existing, I wonder if the pundits might’ve missed the boat. An antonym to entitlement, it seems to me, is social responsibility, gratitude even. That’s why I find a story in Time from back in April so encouraging. Hamdi Ulukaya, the president and CEO of a successful yogurt company (Chobani), decided to give his full-time employees, in a reverse kind of tithing, a 10 percent share of the company. After all, one can only eat so much yogurt.

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This generous action sets out in sharp relief some of the dangers of quotidian capitalism. Many of those who feel that unencumbered free enterprise is the only fair system don’t spend long enough looking around themselves. I’m sure studies must exist that explore what the cubicle mentality does to people. Working in a little cell, open to the view of others to ensure you aren’t slacking, knowing that someone on the floors above is getting rich from your efforts, it’s hard to believe the system’s working. Descend to street level and those who don’t even rate as drones will meet your eyes, if you keep them open. We are in the habit of discarding people as just another resource that can be remaindered and wasted. Let them eat yogurt. Social obligation? What’s that?

No, entitlement didn’t begin in 1979. Perhaps the most obvious idealist in this country the past century was Franklin D. Roosevelt. He repeatedly earned the wrath of the entitled wealthy for wanting to set up social safety nets to help the poor. When the United States entered World War Two, he realized, however, that military contracts had to allow for owners to get rich otherwise they wouldn’t contribute to the effort. If you’ve got the money to keep yourself safe, what do mere concepts as liberty and fairness mean to you? Wealth entitles personal survival, obviously. Let the others fend for themselves. There are companies with a conscience, but the fact that they stand out so clearly against the backdrop of business as usual should be telling us something. As you chew this over, you might consider having a Chobani. Go ahead, you’re entitled.

Holiday Weekend

John Seward Johnson II is a sculptor whose work is instantly recognizable by a number of people. Realistic, life-size bronze castings of people doing everyday things, some are painted so as to be difficult to distinguish from quotidian humans. Others are left more abstractly colored or sized so as never to be mistaken. They are, in many ways, explorations of what it means to be human. One of Johnson’s statues, “Double Check” presents a business man sitting on a bench, checking his briefcase. It is most famous for having sat near ground zero and having confused rescuers as a real person traumatized by the events of September 11. Memorial Day seems like a good opportunity to revisit the statue that many thought was human, and which many people still adore.

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While perhaps the most obvious question a sentient being can ponder, what it means to be conscious (and in our case, human) is without an easy answer. We are animals aware of our own mortality in a way that causes many of us angst, or even terror. Humans (and perhaps other conscious animals are) notorious anthropomorphists—we think of other creatures, and even inanimate objects as being like ourselves. We can mistake statues for real people. All too often we treat others as if they were made of cast bronze. Memorial Day is for remembering, but the fallen haven’t only been the victims of the madness we call war. Violence done to others for one’s own gratification is an act of war on a personal scale. Individuals who destroy many others need to stand long before a statue and ponder.

“Double Check” has become an icon of sorts. People left gifts and remembrances for the victims of the attack on the statue. When the real thing isn’t there, sometimes a statue will do. This can teach us something about being human. As we die, at least in this culture, we are buried and a headstone becomes our statue. Our representation for the world to remember that we were here. Our progeny may lay flowers on our grave on this date some day in the future while statues that look just like humans will remain largely unchanged, asking those who remain alive to check again. To think, what does it mean to be human? And when any of us may be tempted to harm anyone else, perhaps we should gaze at a statue and consider the implications.

Literate Madmen

My experience of paternal parents growing up never led me to think Father’s Day was a holiday particularly worth celebrating. (Don’t panic—today’s not Father’s Day!) I do have an ironical sense of humor about the commemoration, though. So the other day when I clicked through one of Amazon’s many daily ads to my email account, I noticed it was for Father’s Day gifts. The first item listed was Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Probably based on my browsing history, I thought. But no, I’ve been looking at non-fiction lately and I bought my well-worn copy of Dostoyevsky before Amazon was a gigabyte in Jeff Bezos’ eye, back when I was in seminary. Then it dawned on me: this is perhaps the most famous patricide novel ever written. Had the Amazon advertisers really thought about what they were recommending? “Here, Dad. It’s a book about sons killing their father.” If marketing is driving America, it may be time to pull over at a rest stop for a coffee break. Or at least read the book first.

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I don’t pay attention to when Father’s Day is. It comes somewhere in that complex of spring holidays that include Passover, Easter, Mother’s Day, and Memorial Day. When my father was alive I sent him a card. It was a card to a stranger, but as Episcopalians know, it’s the done thing. I loved him, but I didn’t know him. Not that I’ve been a parent that deserves a holiday dedicated to my skill either. I confess my fair share of parental failures. They play and replay in my head, in the way the Protestant brain can never quite clear itself of guilt. We, as people, I believe, generally try our best to be good parents. It can be difficult, though. Nothing really prepares you for it.

One of my brothers once told me that, after having a girlfriend with kids from a previous marriage, he better understood how our stepfather viewed us as inherited children. Although I always want to claim the victim role in that scenario (I was only ten, what could I do?, etc.) his insight has stayed with me. It can’t be easy to inherit someone else’s progeny. It’s tricky raising your own child—that new person you want never to experience your own disappointments in life. Even cynics can be sentimental. But then again, I’ve been plowing through The Brothers Karamazov again since January, frequently laying it aside for weeks at a time. It’s not the kind of book I’d give a father on the edge. It’s okay, I think I’m good to drive again. I just won’t pay any attention to the ads I see beside the road.

Mythisotry

Positivism takes no captives. I’m not talking about the philosophical system—not necessarily—but about the phenomenon of assuming absolutes are available for human consumption. Some physicists, for example, assume that because our five senses can detect reality only the perceptions of those senses can be considered real. Material. Nothing more. Nothing less. A similar view plagues those who believe history is the telling of “what actually happened.” No historical event has ever been fully explained. All stories are told from a perspective. This is particularly dangerous when religions get involved. Many mistake historical veracity for “truth.” If it didn’t occur just as “the Bible says” then we should throw out the whole shebang. No point in believing in half truths. This is a myth.

This point was reinforced when a friend send me an article about the production of “The Hollow Crown” on the BBC. Apparently a local politician tweeted that having a Nigerian of Jewish descent (Sophie Okonedo) play Margaret of Anjou, a French queen, didn’t match history. As proof he provided a downy white Medieval illustration of the queen. In a rare moment of academic cool, an historian quickly pointed out that the illustration came from a manuscript that claimed Margaret descended, Leda-like, from a swan. Her whiteness, thus, belonged to her avian DNA. As the story makes clear, history is the modern mythology. We assume we know what happened, but we will only ever have part of the picture.

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Prejudice seldom worries about historical accuracy, unless, of course, it helps to uphold the bias. I used to caution my students about taking history as a statement of fact. Certainly there are events with factual elements, but when everything is interconnected we can never untangle precisely what happened. When we “believe” history, we are choosing to accept a certain viewpoint of things. One person’s manifest destiny is another person’s genocide. Peculiar institutions are very peculiar indeed. History, as we’ve come to know, reflects the point of view of the historian. It must be read and evaluated as the opinion of the writer and not as the absolute truth. For me, I rather like the idea that some people are descended from birds. It certainly helps to make more sense of what I see in the behavior of those who claim to be making history today.

Religious Melancholy

DamnedNationI’d never come across the term “religious melancholics” before, but somehow it seemed to suit me. Perhaps that goes without saying as I’m reading Damned Nation, by Kathryn Gin Lum. While sitting on a bus. We’re sitting in traffic and the guy sitting next to me has obviously just finished a cigarette before climbing aboard. Having grown up as the victim of second-hand smoke for my first two decades in life, I’m thinking about Hell as well as reading about it. You see, Gin Lum’s descriptive subtitle is Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction. The fact that Hell’s alive and well, despite some evangelicals’ attempts at annihilating it, suggests that it’s best to keep informed on the topic. This book’s mostly historical, however, reporting how Americans interpreted Hell in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

As with most histories, I find the earliest material the most interesting. Gin Lum tends to focus, naturally, on preachers at this period since they are the ones most likely to talk about eternity. The thing that struck me the most was the number of people she describes who, after contemplating (a primarily Calvinist vision of) Hell, attempted suicide. I tend to think of suicide as a contemporary problem, but obviously it has been a steady human practice since our species first learned that you don’t have to wait for someone else to help you slough off this mortal coil. It is troubling, however, that it was a “doctrine” barely found in the Bible that led people—most of whom later became preachers—to try to kill themselves. It also seemed a touch odd that evangelicals in those earlier days of our nation didn’t find it troubling that those leading the flock had almost sent themselves to perdition. These early days of literal Hell believing were most interesting indeed.

The phrase “religious melancholics” comes from the resistance. There were those—generally skeptics, doctors, psychologists, and the like—who felt that the preaching of hellfire and brimstone took a toll on the healthy psyche, particularly of the young. As one of those who grew up attending revivals where Hell was a featured guest, I know that my life has been a prolonged attempt to avoid said eternal lake of fire. Even when I rationally learned that there is no three-tiered universe in which it still fit, and that the idea was cobbled together from a variety of religions into the ultimate scary place, Hell still manages to haunt me. Does it keep me moral? I don’t suppose that to be the case, since I have tended to believe people are basically good. Don’t bother trying to convince me logically that Hell doesn’t physically exist. I know that already. It’s the mental one that I’m trying to avoid. And that can be a full-time job for a religious melancholic brought up on a diet of overcooked theology.

The Werewolf in Summer

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It must be incredibly difficult to write a truly scary song. I don’t mean the kind of scare that most heavy metal can innately deliver, but I mean the kind of thrill that a classic horror movie gives. I’m constantly looking for the movie that can recreate the chills without getting blood all over the carpet. Music, however, soothes the savage beast. I remember when Michael Jackson’s Thriller came out. Now, nothing about Jackson’s musical style shows any hint of being scary. It’s too upbeat. In the end the ghost will be a mere reflection in the mirror, and the zombies will fade with the sunrise. I had some people tell me back then that it gave them the chills just listening to it. Amateurs. A couple weeks back I wrote a post on Radiohead’s “Burn the Witch.” It’s kind of scary, but it doesn’t keep me up at night. I haven’t heard Paul Simon’s new album Stranger to Stranger, but when I learned from NPR that it has a track called “The Werewolf,” I knew I’d eventually add it to my growing stack of MP3s.

Like Thriller, the musical style of the song isn’t inherently scary. The organ in the final minute is pretty effective, though. What’s scary about “The Werewolf”? The lyrics. Simon is, to this child of the sixties, the foremost lyricist of his genre. Rich, complex, nuanced, his words tell a story and that story is scary. While I prefer my werewolves with different baggage, it’s pretty clear that like most shapeshifters the werewolf stands for hunger. There’s violent rage, of course, but like the wendigo, hunger drives those who can’t fulfill their desires in human shape. The Howling, for example, shows how lust can make a werewolf. There is a lust more dangerous than that of the flesh, and that is the greed that leads to societies with one-percenters who just can’t stop eating.

When we see Trump-clones who pay no taxes at all, due to the good that being uber-rich offers the economy, we should listen for howling in the night. Too many an April has rolled around where those of us called “middle class” stare in wonder at just how large a cut our government takes. The werewolves don’t wait for October to come around. No, those who are hungry eat all the time. I don’t find Simon’s music to be particularly scary. The tempo is upbeat and his voice just can’t feel threatening. Still, I’m shivering after listening to “The Werewolf” even though the shortest night of the year is fast approaching on padded paws.

Sundog

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Spring has been taking its time to arrive here in the northeast. Just when things seem to have set on a course of identifiable progress, the temperature drops twenty degrees and the rain sets in again. It’s been great weather for toadstools. There are bright patches, however. I read on the bus, but one day last week as we were trundling toward New York City I glanced out the window. The sky was mostly clear and a sundog shone brightly to the north like my own personal star of Bethlehem. Sundogs feel like good omens. I’ve read enough about meteorology to know that they are merely a refraction of sunlight due to ice crystals high in the atmosphere. Depending on your angle of view, they might appear as a halo all the way around the sun, at which point they’re no longer dogs, or, at certain times of day they may appear as a solid beam coming down to earth in the form of a sun-pillar. It’s only ice and light.

Those of us who stare long at the sky know that the weather is merely a metaphor. The earth spins. It revolves. It rotates. It’s cold at the tips and warm in the middle. The laws of physics—unbreakable they tell us—state that all bodies seek equilibrium. A constant California temperature. If humans should survive long enough we might find our globe of uniform temperature, smooth as a billiard ball, and utterly lifeless. We need the variations of our weather. The chill of a spring that just won’t warm up. The heat of a summer that wilts down to the roots. Ice and light.

I’m heading into a large city. It’s a quotidian trip that some might suppose to be void of meaning. The sundog follows us for a while until it’s lost in the skyscrapers of human devising. Towers that over-reach but which the gods have to bend down to see. Nobody knows the origin of the term “sundog.” My favorite explanation is from Norse mythology where wolves pursue the sun and moon to consume them. This feels so appropriate to me as I enter the artificial canyons of hubris, glass, and concrete. As the day progresses the sundogs appear to disappear. Towers continue to grow. Beyond them, high in the sky, ice and light will continue their play, even if the dogs never do reach the sun. Refraction of light may cause things to manifest as other than they truly are.

Being Humanity

KindnessOfStrangersWhat do you want to be when you grow up? The question kept recurring as I read The Kindness of Strangers. The name Kate Adie may be more familiar to readers from the UK than to those from the US. While spending three years and a bit in Scotland, my wife and I grew accustomed to hearing her name as a reporter with the BBC. I’ve just finished reading her memoir and it brought to mind several points that hit quite close to home. Apart from being engagingly written, her biographical essays highlight the difficulties women still face in much of the world. As a journalist, Adie traveled to many vexed locations where some expressed surprise that a woman would have such freedom as to run around with men, investigating, reporting, and being seen by many, many viewers. Meanwhile, those she sojourned among had to deal with oppressive regimes, low standards of social justice, and, not infrequently, the fear of rape. It is a poignant and at times maddening account. Men the world over seem to share a horrid, deeply ingrained and reinforced concept that women are somehow there to serve them. Here we are in the twenty-first century and we’re still struggling with basic biology.

If I might tear myself away from that particular observation for a moment, I also found Adie’s firsthand accounts of the atrocities she witnessed deeply troubling. In this day of Holocaust awareness and the belief in human dignity, it is distressing to see how cheap life is under many governments in the world. How humans can be so inhumane boggles the mind of those with any sense that we’ve somehow evolved. Often the hatred is based in differing religious outlooks, but often religion is only an excuse. The offending religions that are touted almost all teach the descent treatment of your fellow human beings. Sadly, nothing appears to have been learned from the all-too-intentional violence of the past century. The real issue, reading between the lines, is power, not faith. It is easy to have a scapegoat, and some analysts (not Adie, I would emphasize) like to suggest a simple solution by placing their hands on the head of religion and confessing the deadly sin of being human over it.

The book, I should add, is not all gloom. Adie is witty, sophisticated, and a charming writer. One of the positive takeaways I had from her life story is that the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is all wrong. Adie never wanted to be a journalist, but through a series of circumstances eventually found herself one. A much decorated and honored one, no less. This is a lesson for our time. The old stabilities of choosing a career and staying with it seem to have eroded from beneath us. It is increasingly difficult to plan ahead for an uncertain future. Adie is a fine example of how to adapt along the way. More than that—and men pay attention here—she’s an exceptional example of what it means to be human. This is what we should all strive to be when we grow up.

Forgive Us Our Tabs

Forgiveness is somewhat of a specialization among the crowd courted by the new GOP. Although it is forgiveness that goes only one way, at least it’s a start. Think back to Bill Clinton making his non-inhalation declaration followed by W who could not hide from his drug-fueled Yale days. Televangelists who admit, in tears, that they had an affair stand a fair prognosis for at least a limited recovery. The religious right loves a repentant sinner. I suspect it will be the trump card in the deck, come this fall. A host of sins can be banished under this incredibly effective rubric. This past week Mike Webb, Republican hopeful for Virginia’s Congress, having lost his party’s bid decided to run as an independent. No forgiveness required. What’s right is right. During his announcement of his decision, however, he posted a screenshot on Facebook without checking his tabs. As the Washington Post article by Justin Wm. Moyer reveals, some of those tabs included porn sites. In a move no Democrat could’ve made, the conservative candidate thanked God for his mistake and his likes increased by 25 percent.

Technology is a kind of big brother. By their tabs you will know them. Our browser histories reveal who we really are. Browser histories, however, may be cleared. And those who know how to manipulate the forgiveness card can make no mistakes. After all the Gospels declare that you must forgive the repentant 490 times (taken literally), which leaves a comfortable margin to get elected. A little bit of time with the Good Book can do wonders for your campaign. The problem is, it only works with the GOP. If he admitted to inhaling, you can be sure that the War on Drugs would’ve crashed down on the White House. Dems have to keep squeaky-clean records because forgiveness doesn’t apply to that crowd.

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One of the ironies, apart from the Viagra ad on the page telling this story, is that such incidents reveal a basic misunderstanding on the part of the electorate. No tenet is more easily finessed than forgiveness. Who’d hit a dog who’s rolled over on his back, exposing his vulnerability, admitting that he’s just eaten what you left on the counter for your dinner? Apologies can be accepted for some of the most outlandish sins. They’re cheap to make but reap rich rewards. As a former evangelical I know this may sound terribly cynical. All I can say is I’m sorry, please forgive me. And don’t look too closely at my tabs.

Freezes Over

A good metaphor gone bad can do a lot of damage. Like a loose cannon. Hell is a bad neighborhood for metaphors. Taken literally Hell can be hell. So it is that many evangelical Christians are abandoning the concept. Jumping ship on the Manichean outlook that has policed bad behavior for two millennia now. A recent article on National Geographic by Mark Strauss discusses why many leading conservatives are now casting Hell into the pit and looking for ways to make God look better. Like many metaphors, Hell best resides in a world of black and white. A dualistic world where there are no shades of gray (certainly less than fifty of them). A world where any behavior can be understood as good or bad, forward or retrograde, never neutral. You’re either for us or against us. There’s no Switzerland in this geography. That’s precisely why so many people want to keep Hell on a leash.

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Hell probably never would’ve become such a motivator for good had Jesus not mentioned it. Prior to its encounter with Zoroastrian beliefs, Judaism held that the dead quietly resided in Sheol, a dreary place, true, but hardly fiery real estate. You worked out justice here on earth because that was the only chance you had. The dead were sleepier than early morning commuters and they received neither rewards or punishments. It was a much more egalitarian view of things. The dualistic Zoroastrians saw paradise and torment as a great image to explain evil in the world. The sorting takes place after this life is over. Jesus used such language as well, and the image became canonical.

Evangelicals are now starting to think through the implications of all this. A God with the kinds of anger issues that condemn people literally forever might be problematic. Sure, we may get angry at our enemies, but only the most truly heartless person has no pity on their suffering. What does it say about God if his anger lasts for eternity? Some, therefore, are trying to put the metaphor back into Hell without losing the strict divisions for which the good news crowd is famous. Instead of full-time Hell, perhaps there’s part-time Hell with time for repentance. Or simple annihilation. Metaphors lose their power when they come to be taken literally. Hell is such a loose canon. Doctrine among the doctrinaire is often non-negotiable. Although some may try, as a whole, the fires of Hell can never be extinguished. At least to those who understand figures of speech as statements of fact.

Map to Eternity

One of the most remarkable things about Christianity is its fascination with the end of the world. Far from being the obsession of nineteenth-century dispensationalists alone (the other Mr. Darby), the earnestly anticipated end goes back to Paul of Tarsus, the first known Christian writer. Before even a Gospel was penned, this sect was expecting the end to come any day now. It still is, at least among many sub-sects. My wife, however, recently sent me a story on National Geographic about a map collection from the 1480s that depicts a geography of the apocalypse. If you were wondering where to make that left-hand turn, this book may be for you. One wouldn’t want to drive a German mile into Hell without an indicator signal on.

The story by Greg Miller describes this late Medieval manuscript and its assurance that the world will end in 1651—talk about your great disappointment! The unknown author of the codex feared Islam almost as much as Donald Trump but instead of running for the GOP nomination he wrote a book showing just how the end would take place. Illustrated, of course. Map is territory after all. I grew up reading fundamentalist tracts that did essentially the same thing. The more progressive bits of the propaganda left out the actual dates because an earlier Miller seems to have missed the doomsday boat, along with various and sundry telltale timekeepers. There in front of me I could nevertheless unfold the future and once the European Common Market gets its tenth member—wait, what? Has yet another head of the beast been lopped off?

Maps give more than directions.

Maps give more than directions.

Ironically, early Christianities were anti-materialistic. Money was considered the root of all evil and communism was the ideal. If you doubt me ask Ananias and Sapphira. They thought long-term investment was a bit of a foolish notion—something that I have somewhat naively, if unintentionally, followed my whole professional life. You can’t be vested without three years of servitude after all, and I was expecting the Second Coming after one year. Two, tops. If only I’d had a roadmap. It’s only 1777 German miles from Lübeck to paradise, so maybe I can catch the next doomsday boat and still get there in time.

Noah Way

As a fleet of Noah’s Arks near completion, some critics would like to stop these Titanics from their mythical crossing. The Ark Encounter, despite announcements of its demise, is set to open soon in Kentucky. This Noah’s Ark replica, unlike its seaworthy compatriots, is land-locked in bluegrass country. According to a story originating in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Tri-State Freethinkers tried to take out billboard ads suggesting the ark advocates genocide and incest. Well, marrying first cousins has been done before (think about it). And if you go back ten generations things get even a bit dicier with Cain’s wife and that of Seth. All in the Family wouldn’t even air for 6000 years. As for genocide, well, this was more like genomicide. Not a race, but an entire species, apart from kissing cousins, was about to learn the hard lesson of being born not of chosen stock.

According to the article billboard companies have rejected the Freethinkers’ proposal. It might cause accidents, they suggest, which, although not technically genocide, do take the lives of the innocent, even in dry weather. The flood divides people. Thus it always has.

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The culture wars, curiously, pick strange targets. I’m not in favor of teaching children to read myths literally, but then, I’m not in favor of bringing them up as materialists either. There used to be a concept called the “via media”—the middle of the road. Now such a stance appears decidedly wishy-washy. Milquetoast anyone? It is much better to be combative. “Oh George, you’re always so forceful,” sighs Winifred. So we teach our children. Boys, push your way to the front.

Implications can be tricky things. Allowing opponents, no matter how naive, their say has always been a mucking out of the Augean stables. Nobody likes to accommodate other points of view. Watching the parade of politicians we must be assured that we alone are right. Still, the stillborn billboard has a point. Building arks is the sign of the ultimate intolerance. Not only do you condemn those who differ to the outside, you are giving them a self-righteous death sentence. Maybe the billboard should stand. Or maybe it should not. What would Charlie Brown do?

Evolving Technology

Speaking of prediction, after yesterday’s post my wife sent me a BBC story entitled “The Machine Stops: Did EM Forster predict the internet age?”. Although the story by Chris Long is classified as Entertainment and Arts, the issues raised are very serious. Vital even. Now I have to admit that I’ve never read E. M. Forster’s work. As much as I love short stories, I tend to use my reading time on novels and non-fiction and Forester’s focus on class distinctions isn’t what I always find the most engaging. Still, as the BBC story makes clear, what makes “The Machine Stops” so important isn’t its “prediction” of the internet, but rather what that envisioned technology does to people. It changes them. One of the unrealized facets of evolution is that our fellow beasts without opposable thumbs have fallen somewhat behind in the race to invent technologies that impact the entire planet in an intrusive way. No atomic bombs have been built by whales. Of course, I’ve always suspected they’re smarter than we are.

With the internet—a kind of accidental technology—we have changed the world for most people. There are still many millions who aren’t constantly wired, but for those of us who’ve allowed ourselves to become assimilated, we can imagine life no other way. I, for one, couldn’t do my job without the web. Well, I suppose I could, but expectations would have to be much, much lower. And my check couldn’t be deposited electronically into an account that I have to take it on faith really exists. Long, in this BBC piece, notes that the poignancy of the story is that being connected by an “internet” changes the nature of human interactions. Anyone who’s shared an elevator with three other people all texting their friends simultaneously knows what I mean. I’ve gone entire days without an actual human being uttering a word to me. And this is while working in a city of 8 million people. Keep the business virtual. Are we not men? (Pardon the gender-based noun; it’s only virtual.)

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I’ve loved and lost many readers on this blog. Those who are perceptive will realize this is merely an electronic voice meant to replace a human one. A voice, if I may be so bold, crying in the webberness. Technology changes us. I bought my first computer to be a glorified typewriter. Now my life revolves around its more evolved descendants. Technology has raised to an even higher level that question that has haunted since technology was no more than a good fire to sit around at night: what is it to be human? Today that answer involves the internet. And I’m not sure if I should be worried or not, but last night I dreamed of electric sheep.

Prophets Paid

Photo credit: Cephas, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Cephas, Wikimedia Commons

Prognostication used to be the remit of oversized rodents and individuals we’d now classify as mad. And news used to be stories about things that had already happened. Past tense things. I don’t read any daily newspapers—a personality flaw, I know—but I do read stories that are sent my way, even if it takes some time. One of the things I’ve noticed, particularly in this election year, is the amount of prediction that passes as news. Future tense reporting. And the future is very tense.

Always one to assume that others know more than I do, I consider the opinions of experts as more valid than my own. After all, they are paid for what they think. Nobody spends good money on amateur opinion, which is one of the cheapest resources available in the civilized world. So when I read the headlines about what to expect this fall I see that the prophets and anti-prophets are lined up along party lines and, if democracy holds up, we’ll find out which group is which, come November. This makes me wonder what life would’ve been like under biblical prophets. No, their job was not primarily foretelling—future prediction was a small percentage of their job description—but they occasionally made political predictions when the boss told them to. Some people think they were primarily concerned with a future political figure, even if Messiah isn’t exactly an elected position. Hoi polloi must have been in a state of high anxiety. Who’s right? We know that for every prophet, according to the laws of rhetoric, there must be an anti-prophet. If a message is coming from on high we don’t know from whom.

Long ago media moguls learned that anxiety sells papers. Or news broadcasts. Sales boom after disasters. Extra! Extra! Read all about it! I’ve seen it in movies and televisions shows, so I know it must be true. As if real life events don’t generate enough trauma, we speculate about a future that tends towards the bleak. What’s a polis to do? The dilemma hasn’t changed in the millennia since we’ve outgrown prophecy—there’s no way to know who’s right. It’s all speculation. As for me, I wonder what the local groundhog thinks. And while we’re at it, could we get a bit nicer weather for a while? I thought the prophecy was April showers bring May flowers, not the other way around. But then again, my opinion is a decidedly amateur one.

Busyness as Usual

“Time,” Morpheus said, “is always against us.” Such is life in the Matrix. Wake before daylight. Climb on a bus. Stare at a screen for a solid eight hours. Climb on a bus. Sleep before dark. Repeat. It’s a schedule only a machine could appreciate. Since I was a seminary student, I’ve considered time an ethical issue. Take waiting in line, for example. This is difficult to convert to a good use of resources. In circumstances where the queue is anticipated, such as waiting for a bus, one might bring along a book. The unexpected line, however, is wasted time. Paying Agent Smith his due. This all comes to mind because of a recent news blurb about Søren Kierkegaard. The story in Quartz, cites the Kierkegaard quote: “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me to be busy—to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work… What, I wonder, do these busy folks get done?”

Kierkegaard

I’m a lapsed Kierkegaard reader. The sad fact is that philosophy takes time. You can’t sit down and whiz through it. You need to stop frequently and ponder. This was the life of the academic that I once knew. Before the Hindenburg. Before capitalism became my raison d’être. You see, you can never give too much time to work. There’s always email. The internet has wired us to that which once wired money. “We are the Borg.” There’s no time for a Danish and a concluding unscientific postscript any more. We willingly comply because the rent is due. What, o Søren am I getting done?

We rush around, it seems to me, because when labor-saving devices were invented they only led to more labor. Our European colleagues look with wonder at our febrile, frenetic pace. They wonder where it has gotten us. Has the final trump indeed sounded? Has the stock market become divine? Has money become the only Ding an sich? Kierkegaard wears a thick layer of dust on my shelf. Once I spent an entire day trying to digest a single paragraph of his writing. Now I brush him off like crumbs from my danish and I don’t have time to finish my coffee since the till is calling. I will get back to you, Søren, truly I will. It’s just that I have this never-ending task to accomplish first. After that we’ll sit down and have a leisurely talk.