Ethics of Nations

If it hadn’t started two world wars last century, Germany would likely have a stellar reputation.  I don’t say this because of my own Teutonic blood, but rather because as a nation they seem both intelligent and troubled.  Philosophical, if you will.  A story in Times Higher Education explains how Germany is planning its reopening with the input of humanities experts as well as scientists.  The stance is driven by ethics.  We know that when strictures are loosed more cases of COVID-19 will break out.  More people will inevitably die of it.  Germany realizes that this makes it an ethical issue as well as an economic one.  And ethics are best discussed by those who study humanities.  I noticed that they’re even including theologians on their panels.  This seems smart to me.

Meanwhile Boris Johnson’s reopening team in Britain is secret.  Not wanting the public to know who’s making the decisions that will certainly kill some of them, they prefer to act under cover of darkness.  The thing about the cone of silence is that it never works.  Historians will scratch their heads over how, in the course of one century, the good guys became the bad guys and the bad the good.  Have the Allies become an—to borrow a phrase—axis of evil?  The wealthy alone are worth saving, and the economy takes presedence over the welfare of the greatest number.  Back in my philosophy classes we learned about utilitarianism and also its problems.  You see, being a humanities specialist means learning to think through thorny issues, looking at all different angles.  Being a conservative means looking only at the bottom line.

Humanities are related to the concept of humanitarianism.  I know that’s a big word, and it doesn’t bring in much mammon, but still, it encompasses all of us.  This crisis could bring out the best in humankind, or we can let the narrative go to the Clorox-eaters and those who believe winning elections are all that’s important, even if there’s nobody left to govern when its all over.  Being a politician is a zero-sum game I guess.  Looking at the numbers, Germany seems to have brought the number of deaths down when measured against the count of established cases.  That to me seems like a human goal worth striving for.  Of course, we could just incite riots in our own countries to infect even more people.  Being reelected so as to give oneself even more tax breaks is all that really matters.  At least among the axis powers.

Quiet Quarantine

I’m an introvert.  I require quiet time—quite a lot of it—to recharge and prepare myself to be social.  Some people think introverts don’t want to be around others.  That’s not true.  The fact is being with other people is enjoyable, but it requires a special kind of energy that introverts don’t have in great reserve.  When the COVID-19 outbreak began introverts collectively (yes!) felt a need to help their extroverted friends and colleagues deal with the “new normal” of isolation.  Now that we’ve been in the situation for over a month, I have seen a different pattern emerging.  Extroverts are now taking over the quiet space and trying to make it noisy.  I don’t think it’s intentional, but I do think that introverts may be the ones most stressed out by this situation.

Here’s an experiment.  Put an extrovert in self-isolation with a room full of communication devices.  What do you think will happen?  If you’re on the introverted receiving end, you already know.  Days interrupted by cheeps, dings, and chimes as someone needs to talk to you.  Why you?  You’re quiet, you know how to listen.  The extraverts can’t become quiet, and of quiet and noise the same one is always on the receiving end of violence.  Quiet shatters, noise doesn’t.  Five weeks into this and the introverts have bags under their eyes and the extroverts are exclaiming “It’s not half so bad!”

While Nashotah House ruined it for me, for many years I had considered whether I shouldn’t join a monastic community.  I need quiet as much as I need air, and although I can be outgoing when I have to, I need quiet at the end of the day to make up for it.  My case is somewhat mild.  I know introverts who truly struggle when they have to spend a lot of time in a crowded place.  The internet, my friends, is a crowded place.  It took these weeks for me to figure out why I have so much less time now than I used to.  The demand of making noise has been upped.

Sitting at home with quiet streets outside can be eerie.  It can also be rejuvenating.  Embracing the silence isn’t a bad practice.  One of the reasons, I suspect, that I still awake around 3:00 a.m. is that it is quiet.  Very seldom am I interrupted then.  Work will have its pound of flesh, of course, and from there on my day descends, or ascends, back towards quiet.  It’s not a bad way to live.  It just takes practice.

Misreading Melville

I make it a practice not to discuss books I’m still reading on this blog.  There’s no reason I shouldn’t, I suppose, but it just feels like cheating getting more than one post for a book.  Besides, there’s so much other stuff to blog about!  I’ll make an exception this time, because it involves an unusual typo.  Well, it’s not so much unusual as it is apt.  In chapter 82 of Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, “The Honor and glory of Whaling,” he discusses the mythical history of whaling.  In typical Melvillian style, he takes mythical stories to support his contention of how honorable whaling is.  After Perseus and St. George and the dragon, he mentions the curious biblical episode of Dagon and the ark of the covenant, found in 1 Samuel 5.  It’s here that my edition has a typo.  Melville writes “this whole story will fare like that fish, flesh, and fowl idol of the Philistines, Dagon by name” but my edition reads “Dragon by name.”

Image credit: Vignette by Loutherbourg for the Macklin Bible 12 of 134, via Wikimedia Commons

My very first academic publication was on this story about Dagon (I had intended to write my dissertation on that deity).  I had no idea of H. P. Lovecraft’s appropriation of Dagon at that point.  The interest was purely based on the fact that you couldn’t find much information on this curious god.  It was clear that he was well known among ancient cultures of West Asia.  He was attested at Ugarit, specifically as the father of Baal.  (Both would later be assumed to be demons.)  Further east, he was apparently a fairly major deity in Mesopotamian religions, although we are still awaiting a readable synthesis of that massive corpus of texts and the religions toward which it points.  In other words, Dagon is mysterious.  Lovecraft likely picked him up from the biblical story.

The tale in 1 Samuel is provocative.  After defeating Israel, the Philistines (who would eventually give Palestine its name) took the ark to the temple of Dagon as spoils.  The image of their god fell face-down before the ark overnight.  Disturbing as this was, the next morning after they’d replaced him, Dagon was again tumbled but also decapitated and with his hands broken off.  That meant his body was all that was left.  Somewhere along the line the name Dagon (close to the Hebrew word for “fish”) was interpreted as a maritime entity.  This seems unlikely, given what we know of his origins, but the idea stuck, leading to some compelling horror fiction.  Dagon does indeed become a kind of dragon in that realm.  My edition of Moby Dick has a typo that we today would blame on autocorrect, but in reality was likely the result of a copyeditor not knowing his or her Bible as well as Melville did.

White Rabbit

There are books that make you feel as if everything you know is uncertain.  D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic is such a book.  Its subtitle, UFOs, Religion, Technology, only pauses at the brink of the rabbit hole down which this study will take you.  Over the years I admit to having been jealous of colleagues who’ve been able to make an academic career stick.  The credentials of a university post open doors for you, even if you’re a professor of religion.  Pasulka has opened some doors here that I suspect many would prefer to have kept closed.  This is a compelling book, threading together many themes tied to religious studies.  There are things we might see, if only we’ll open our eyes.

Although immediately and automatically subjected to the ridicule response, UFOs are a fascinating subject.  This book isn’t about UFO religions—of which there are many—but rather it connects this phenomenon to the study of religion itself.  In Pasulka’s related field of Catholic studies, there are those anomalous accounts of saints who did the impossible.  Like UFOs, they are subjected to the ridicule response, making serious discussion of them difficult.  Might the two be related?  As you feel yourself spinning deeper and deeper down that hole, technology comes into the picture and complicates it even further.  Pasulka was a consultant on The Conjuring.  I’ve written about the movie myself, but what I hadn’t realized is how media connects with perceptions of reality.  Yes, it has a religious freight too.

Every once in a while I reflect that my decision—if it was a decision; sometimes I feel certain my field chose me—to study religion might not have been misplaced.  Perhaps all of this does tie together in some way.  American Cosmic is a mind-expanding book that assures me all those years and dollars learning about religion weren’t wasted after all.  I had a discussion recently with another doctoral holder who’s been relegated to the role of editor.  We both lamented that our training was in some sense being wasted on a job that hardly requires this level of training.  Still, if it weren’t for my day job I probably wouldn’t have known about this book, and that is perhaps a synchronicity as well.  Life is a puzzle with many thousands—millions—of pieces.  Some books are like finding a match, but others are like informing you that you’ve got the wrong box top in hand as you try to construct the puzzle with the pieces you have.  If you read this book be prepared to come close to finding the white rabbit.

WHO Believes?

These days it’s pretty clear that if you want to listen to anyone for advice it shouldn’t be the government.  I suppose that’s why I spend so much time on the World Health Organization’s page.  I’m no medical person and I certainly don’t understand epidemiology.  Contagion I get, because religion operates that way.  So WHO has been making somewhat frequent references to faith.  A recent status report noted that 84% of the world’s population reckons itself as religious and that many coronavirus outbreaks have taken place because of continued religious gatherings.  To that I suspect they’ll need to add political rallies supporting governments you shouldn’t trust, but what is such blind faith in leaders who don’t know what they’re doing if not religion?  People want to believe.

Religious gatherings also provide crucial support.  The community with which I associate has been using Zoom gatherings since mid-March.  It’s not perfect, of course, but during our virtual coffee hour I’ve been put in breakout rooms with people I don’t know.  I’m starting to get to know people I might be too shy to speak with in “real life.”  More than that, I’m asking myself what real life really is.  Technology has been pushing us in this direction for some time.  We relate virtually rather than physically.  I’ve never met many of the people with whom I have some of my most significant exchanges.  The internet, in other words, has an ecclesiastical element to it.  The words “church” and “synagogue” both go back to roots meaning “to gather.”  Faith, despite the stylites, is not lived alone.

WHO suggests that since religious leaders influence millions of people, if they would turn their message to prevention it could have a tremendous human benefit.  Consider how one man’s personal crusade in the mid-nineteenth century led to elections being decided on the basis of abortion alone.  If faith leaders were to take the good of humankind to heart and spread that message, it could well outstrip the virus.  Alas, but politics interferes.  Many religions also want to determine how people live.  There’s power in that.  We’ve seen it time and again with televangelists.  WHO has faith that these leaders might set aside their scriptures for a moment and read situation reports based in science and rationality.  WHO apparently has faith as well.  Until someone smarter than politicians sorts all of this out we’re probably safest meeting virtually.  Who knows—perhaps there are hidden benefits to that as well?

Bats and Bloodsuckers

In what looks (somewhat cynically) like at attempt to add newness to frightfully old news, the World Health Organization has renamed COVID-19 to the much scarier SARS-CoV-2.  The basics remain the same: the virus is transmitted the same way.  If it lands on a non-organic surface it soon dies without a host, rather like the elected officials of an old party once grand.  Like any parasite, it requires the life of another to prosper.  And so we find Mitch McConnell telling states to declare bankruptcy in a move taken from the Bible’s own playbook.  You see, during a famine in Egypt Pharaoh bailed out the food banks, and by buying all the land made peasants in essence slaves of the state.  The Good Book has all the answers.  A few generations later, however, and Pharaoh had to learn how to swim in the desert.  The divine economy is not without humor.

The WHO report also states that the vector has been traced to bats.  Bats make me think of vampires—I can’t help it, I’m a late monster boomer.  While WHO doesn’t make any connections with vampire bats, I researched them when I was younger.  Unlike elected members of the gOP, vampire bats aren’t selfish.  Nor are they greedy.  Finding a victim, the make a small incision with their sharp little teeth and lap up enough blood to survive.  If another bat goes a night or two without success, vampire bats will share their success, realizing in a way that politicians don’t, that helping one another is an assured way of establishing communal strength.  Or you could just be capitalist about it, let the unsuccessful starve, and go seeking another victim of your own.  Bloated bats don’t fly well.

If the Old Party learns from nature we’ll all benefit.  Greed is hardly the basis for sound government.  Nature would suggest that ingesting disinfectant isn’t the best advice to dole out to a nation about which you truly care.  The Old Party refuses to do anything, of course.  Having proven themselves unable to govern, they’re busy pulling together campaigns for November’s election.  With a leader who’s already said on national television that Republicans can’t win without gaming the election process itself, they don’t even blush.  I’m no expert, but it may be because they don’t have enough blood to rise to their cheeks.  If they’re short on blood it might be worth their while to learn a thing or two from vampire bats.

Paper or Electronic?

Publishers are scrambling (and who can blame them?) to get ebooks out.  Since bookstores have been closed (I’d classify them as essential businesses, in an ideal world), they need to get “product” to customers.  Still, I’m thinking back to my recent interview with an undergraduate about Holy Horror.  She told me the cover really generated interest as she walked around school with it.  (This was before the pandemic.)  That’s old school book advertising.  Although I do learn about lots of books online, I very, very seldom buy ebooks.  It seems like buying air to me, and I wonder if publishers are missing out on the free advertising of the person carrying an interesting book around.

Back before the pandemic I’d noticed how just about everybody was walking around with that awkwardly proud “I’ve got a cup of Starbucks in my hand” look.  It was everywhere.  No matter where I went, for there was free travel in those days, people had only one hand free, showing the world their craft coffee.  If only it were so cool to be seen carrying books!  I stopped commuting about two years ago, for all practical purposes.  When I did get on a bus, however, I always had a book in my hand.  Did publishers see any bumps from curious New Jerseyans who saw the strange cover of the weird book I happened to be reading at the time?  You never got a seat to yourself on New Jersey Transit, and I know I was always curious about other readers (there weren’t many).  I hardly have the profile to define “cool” and “some guy on the bus” probably doesn’t cut it for many people, but still, the thought of someone curious about a book because of the cover is very compelling.

Book covers are artworks.  At least some of them are.  I recall the ennui I felt approaching some academic books with just words on cloth for the cover.  (I later found out the cloth is usually paper made to look like cloth—there are layers in everything.)  It was difficult to muster the energy to open the book because you knew there would likely be hard slogging ahead.  That’s why I decided to stop writing academic books.  The next trick is to find nonacademic publishers so that prices in the range of real readers might be offered.  If people opt for the ebook version, how will others see it?  And viruses only last on paper for about a day.  That’s a quarantine I can live with.