Monthly Archives: August 2016

Twitter Me This

Techoncrat I’m not. At least I understand that to be authentic in this world you need to be on social media. I have a Twitter account. Have had for years. I don’t follow it religiously, but then, I don’t treat any social media like holy writ. The other day I noticed a disturbing trend. Donald Trump’s tweets end up on my bird feed. No, I didn’t accidentally follow him—I have a natural aversion to fascists with delusions of divinity—but nevertheless his mug shows up so frequently that I tend not to follow the bird maybe as much as maybe I should. I wonder how someone thinks s/he has the right to buy part of my consciousness.

Tweet or honk?

Tweet or honk?

The world-wide web is without laws, like the subconscious mind. Thoughts from around the world—at least the affluent part of it—milling, swirling about in an electronic soup thickened by irony. It’s addictive. The opiate of the masses. Perhaps it is a religion after all. Tweets are micro prayers. Blogs are sermons. Facebook is coffee hour. All these connected minds have created a consciousness of their own. Like Victor Frankenstein, we too know what it feels like to be God. It’s not a particularly joyous place to be. Does God, I wonder, lack the control that we experience on the Internet?

I like Twitter. It doesn’t demand much. The only problem is that to stay on top of things you have to have it going all the time. I turn it off and when I come back on I’ve missed hundreds of tweets. And then there’s Donald Trump again. I can come up with my own nightmares, thank you. I don’t need Twitter to suggest any.

Perhaps this is the apotheosis of capitalism. The ability to buy anything, including space on somebody else’s bird feed. Buy the most powerful office in the country, if not the world. Buy hatred and distribute it freely. One thing you can’t buy is intelligence. At least, up until now, some universities still understand that. It has taken me years to gather Twitter followers, like Mrs. Partridge the family band-mates fall behind in a neat, technicolor line. I have no money. I have very little influence. I’m really not a very good capitalist at all. I give away for free what universities charge for. Just like in the classroom, few pay attention. What do I expect? Who really listens to sermons anyway?

Evolving in Place

ImprobablePrimateEnvy is not a word I would use to describe how I feel about those trying to piece together the earliest stages of humanity. Evolution, naturally, is a given. Once beyond that, however, the landscape gets dicey. Clive Finlayson is an author I don’t envy. I just finished his The Improbable Primate: How Water Shaped Human Evolution, and it felt like he had to put this immense puzzle together while missing about nine-tenths of the pieces. Early human fossils are rare and it doesn’t take much to throw a laboriously constructed scenario into yesterday’s mistaken hypothesis bin. The central premise of the book, as stated already in the subtitle—human evolution followed water—seems about as firm as any idea. We need water daily and our bodies evolved to help find it efficiently. It’s a fascinating story. Along the way I learned that much of what I’d previously learned about ancient human development was probably wrong. I’m only a casual evolutionist.

Finlayson suggests—and not all biologists would agree with him—that all humans living on earth at any one time (with one possible exception) were of the same species. That is to say, the model I grew up with of separate species (Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon were the usual suspects) duking it out over scarce resources doesn’t match growing evidence very well. We Homo sapiens seem to share some Neanderthal DNA and that paints a somewhat more romantic encounter between the species than the violent one I learned. The same goes for other human ancestors, according to this little book. Our first instinct may not be to kill the stranger. We may have lived apart for a few thousand years, but when populations come back together they “share genes,” if you get my drift. This still happens, of course. The difference is today we’ve become politicized and entitled. We don’t want people not from around here to share our stuff.

Part of that is natural, I suppose. Finlayson points out that the feeling of belonging in natal territory is something we share with other primates. We feel that we belong where we’re born. That seems to me a difficult thing to quantify, but I feel it nevertheless every time I venture back to my hometown. It just feels right. Not that we can’t adjust to elsewhere, but our nature rewards us, in some measure, when we come home. This is a wide-ranging study for such a small book. I don’t envy all the meticulous jigsaw staring without a box-top that students of human origins must do, but the results are still quite interesting. Even if the picture, when enough pieces are finally found, ends up being something different than we thought it was.

The Neighborhood

583px-Ptolemaicsystem-small

Let me send out a warm welcome to the neighborhood, I think. Not that I officially represent Earth—or anything for that matter. I’m just friendly, I guess. Now that astronomers have strong evidence that the nearest star to our own, Proxima Centauri, likely has a planet, it’s not premature to head over with a casserole. It’s not every day that a new solar system is discovered. We don’t know for sure that the planet’s there, but chances are pretty good. In reading about this discovery I learned that the orthodoxy has changed since I took astronomy in college. It seems now standard wisdom teaches that most stars likely have a least one planet. I can’t even count the stars—I usually start to trail off after I get to about ten—so I can’t imagine the number of potential planets out there. And where there are planets, there are gods.

Let me rephrase that. If there are billions and billions of planets it is very likely that there’s life out there. I know I’m racing ahead of the evidence here, but let me have my fun. If there’s life, there’s a chance, a glimmer of a chance at least, that given enough life we’ll find consciousness. I’ve always thought it was a touch arrogant on our part to assume we were the only ones out here. Perhaps it’s because the stakes are so, ahem, astronomically high we seem to be afraid to admit the possibility. We don’t really want to be alone in this cold, vast, universe after dark. Enter the gods. Conscious beings—even arrogant ones—have no trouble supposing that there is an even greater presence out there. I suspect this isn’t an earth-bound bias. I should hope that conscious life looks toward the stars with wonder, and even after they discover that there’s no lid on their planet they might still ponder what else might be out there.

Let’s suppose there are other creatures out there with other gods. When the meeting takes place we’ll need to have that discussion. You know the one I mean. We’ll need to ask whose deity is really real. Is it yours or is it ours? Hopefully we’ll enter into this with an open mind. I suspect it will depend on who’s in the White House, and all the other big houses, at the time. There are certainly those who claim their own almighty brooks no rivals. If it turns out that we can’t agree, I hope it doesn’t come to blows. There will always be other planets to explore, and maybe even new orthodoxies to accept. It’s an infinite universe, after all.

Imagining Monsters

WideSargassoSeaAll fiction writing, it is often said, is borrowing. I’m not exactly sure that’s literally true, but the basic idea is that writers often trade with one another. They also borrow against their own experience and observations that others have made. When a character, or set of characters, an author develops become(s) wildly popular, fan fiction can result. There are websites dedicated to “fan fic” where characters from one writer are personalized in another writer’s imagination. Another form of borrowing is the parody. Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies takes Jane Austen far beyond her original scenario while using her novel as the basis of something somewhat new. These borrowings, as the saying suggests, have been around for a long time. I recently read Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. The novel from the 1960s is a “prequel” of sorts to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Although spoiler alerts for literature nearly a couple centuries old might seem like overkill, I’ll give one here anyway. You’ve been warned.

Jane Eyre includes quite a lot of gothic mystery. Thornfield has a mad woman, Bertha, the first wife of Mr. Rochester, living in the attic. Bertha is from the Caribbean, and Rhys, although Welsh, was born in Dominica. Taking an interest in the point of view of the neglected, insane Bertha, she decided to tell her story in Wide Sargasso Sea. I won’t sum up the plot here since you may decide to read it. The reason I brought the whole subject up in the first place is the glimpses given of the religions of the Caribbean. Clearly this was not Rhys’ main objective. The Creole of the various races from the slave trade and colonialism, however, did produce fascinating religious amalgams. The zombie, a figure that plays a small part in the imaginative aspects of the novel, is only the most familiar of the creatures.

The soucriant, or soucouyant, is a blood-sucker. A figure that combines elements of witches and vampires, the soucriant takes the form of an old woman by day and a blood-sucker by night. (Before you get the wrong idea, there are no zombie or soucriant characters in Wide Sargasso Sea—they are merely mentioned briefly in conversation.) This concept, while derived independently, relates to the succubus but also to the more modern chupacabra. These are all creatures that suck the vital essence from another, be the victim human or animal. The ubiquity of the idea is striking. In the context of the novel, however, such creatures merely haunt fevered imaginations. Our minds, however, are what make monsters real. Although Rhys declines to diagnose “Bertha” completely, it is clear that human mistreatment of one another creates, in its own ways, monsters. That’s an idea, I suspect, that I’ve borrowed.

Eye of Survivor

I don’t watch television. This isn’t any kind of moral stance. It’s financial. We can’t afford any “triple play” plans for the little free time we have for television. My wife and I both work long hours. We like to read, so we don’t have time for the tube. We buy the shows we want (it’s more honest than advertisements) and movies are a one-off thing. I sometimes lose track of culture, though. Maybe I’m two-faced. I grew up watching television. Then I grew up. But I still occasionally read about television. When we stay with relatives or in a hotel sometimes we imbibe. What I’ve noticed the past few times we’ve been away from home is reality television. Programs with more and more bizarre “real” situations fascinate those who don’t get out much on their own. One of the venerable ancestors of the genre is “Survivor.” I’ve never seen it but even I know what getting “voted off the island” means.

A recent piece in the New Jersey Star-Ledger celebrates a local young man on the show, now in its thirty-third season. This youth, who fancies himself, well, a survivor, notes that his role models are Jesus Christ and Ronald Reagan. I shudder for the future of our species. This young man says he likes to “screw with people’s heads and lie every chance I get.” Is that Reagan or Jesus? Or is it all just a game? The piece by Amy Kuperinksy goes on to quote the boy as saying his tactic for survival is to manipulate people, getting one over on others. But then he’ll use Christianity to build bonds. Machiavelli might have been a better choice of role model here, but then, who has time to read when “Survivor” is on TV?

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution

This isn’t going to devolve into an old person’s jeremiad about the younger generation. Nor is it a castigation of television. (As Homer Simpsons reminds us, many of us were raised by television.) Rather, this is a question posed to our future selves. Perhaps we simply can’t see far enough ahead to get an idea of the consequences of our actions, but my question is what values do we wish to see in our society? Rugged individualism may have worked in the early days, but it led to genocide. Have we gotten over all that? Have we come to the point where we make stars out of those who don’t even pretend to be someone else any more? Maybe I’ve got that wrong—lying and manipulation may well be acting after all. Reagan was among that pantheon. I’m just not sure where Jesus Christ enters the picture.

Take Your Time

PleasuresOfReadingReading is fundamental. Those of us who grew up hearing that slogan have never forgotten it. The part that I wish had stuck better is just a touch shorter: reading is fun. Or it can be. Should be. Alan Jacobs’ little book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is like an extended essay on the subject. As a professor of literature, Jacobs has considerable experience encouraging people to read, and in his book he makes a case for reading what you want to read (reading on a Whim, he calls it). Wisely he recognizes that many would-be readers are discouraged by being instructed to read that which they don’t find appealing. I learned quite a lot from the suggestions contained herein, and I’ve been reading so long that I thought I knew pretty much what I needed to know about it. Perhaps the most fundamental issue (apart from reading itself) is that many of us expect to be told what to read. We second-guess our own judgment, feeling we need an expert to tell us how to do it. Like singing in public, it’s intimidating to come across someone better read than oneself. Jacobs advocates reading what gives you pleasure and not worrying about what others think.

Recognizing that readers are spoiled for choice, Jacobs addresses, among other topics, rereading. And taking notes. And reading slowly. I recall speed-reading courses advertised, ironically, on television. At college you could take courses in improving your quota of pages turned. There is a specific kind of reading, as Jacobs notes—reading for information—where this may be helpful. This is different than reading for pleasure, or even reading for understanding. In the case of the Bible (Jacobs taught at Wheaton before moving on to Baylor) many people, he suggests, read for information rather than for understanding. When reading for pleasure taking your time is a virtue. Getting to know a book requires rereading. We need to make time for what is important.

Jacobs makes the point that readers are a minority sect. There have always been fewer of us than there have been of those who don’t read. We are, in his words, a tribe. We can generally spot one another. Those of us who can’t walk past a bookstore will recognize ourselves in the pages of this meditation. Those who spend long hours with books become like them, in some respects. Familiar, layered, and requiring more and more attention. Like the reading that it advocates, this book itself is a delight to read. There is so much in this brief volume that it’s difficult to summarize in the short-form writing that I use on this blog. I found myself wishing for an index so that I might find my favorite passages again. Then I realized that perhaps this absence was intentional. Maybe I’ll have to reread it, taking notes as I go. What a wonderful thought.

Not Quite Dead

Duria_Antiquior

Extinction is a cause of fear. Having evolved a certain level of self-aware consciousness, we fear becoming the next tyrannosaurus-rex or spinosaurus, or whatever the next top predator turns out to have been. We’re here to stay. So we like to think. Data have been known to interfere with comfort zones, however. Take religion, for example. America has always been a religiously diverse “country,” but many people suppose it has a Christian beginning. Moreover, the historically uninformed suppose that generic Christianity to have been Protestantism (which is not really a single religion) and white (which isn’t really a race). Now, it seems, that white Protestantism is slowly going extinct. An article in the Washington Post by John Sides contains an interview with Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute. Jones has written a book about the end of this particular hegemony.

Demographics tell the story. The powerful cultural force of the mainstream Protestant churches hasn’t disappeared, and really isn’t likely to become extinct. It has, however, diminished. As soon as we began to embrace technology this was a more or less inevitable trajectory for the human race. We made oceans smaller and came to see that we’d evolved different religions in different regions. And that Christianity wasn’t quite unique as we’d thought. “Orthodoxy” was actually a form of prejudice for a past that may never have been. We saw the writing on the wall and went on scribbling. Making claims the data don’t support.

One of the drivers—and this is a complex phenomenon—behind this shift has been the ossified positions of religions in the light of increased understanding. For example, most people see no problem with homosexuality. They believe shooting someone because of their race is wrong. Women, they radically suggest, should have the same rights as men. The hold-out positions on these issues have historically been religiously based. Just listen to the rhetoric of televangelists and see if it has changed. Meanwhile, the world moves on. Many religions are holding still. Or racing to see if their diminishing number of feet might make the world spin backwards after all.

Religion is a human invention. Many protect themselves by claiming direct revelation by a God who used to live in a glass ceiling above our heads. Trips to the moon, probes to Mars, and out of our solar system have proven that view false. If the view of something as basic as the universe was wrong, what else might’ve been a mistake? Jones’ new book will no doubt cause some panic. Extinction, at least not imminently, doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Protestantism seems to have reached a stasis. Religion still has an important function in society. When it takes the lead on issues of equality, we may begin to see a miracle.