Morality, by Contract

So, maybe it’s the crazy wind that was blowing around here all day yesterday, but I’m beginning to wonder about corporate sanity (if there is such a thing).  Specifically, I’ve been hearing about more and more contracts with ethics clauses written into them.  This is downright weird.  Does the signing of a contract make one ethical?  It’s like that silly page that comes up on some workplace servers saying you’re very naughty if you’re not the person you’ve logged in as.  We all know that.  That’s why hackers hack and the rest of us comply.  But legislative morality?  Via contract?  The notion is strange because ethics relies on an agreed-upon set of standards.  If Trump has taught us anything it’s that there’s no agreed-upon set of standards.  Some of us can honestly say that we weigh our own ethics every time we do anything.  Send me a contract and see!

The first time I saw an ethical behavior clause it was in a contract from a Christian company.  They wanted no business dealings with the corrupt, misbehaving, and one might guess, pagan sort.  When such a contract is sent to a business, it means that said business will monitor the morality of all its employees.  That’s something I certainly wouldn’t want to be in charge of.  Rationalization is too easy and far too human.  Let the one without sin cast the first whereas.  Well, one would think that a Christian company might take that point of view.  The way some Christians have treated me over the years makes me shudder at the advantages taken.

This idea seems to be spreading out to secular companies as well.  You read about contracts with ethical clauses in them—anyone who’s not ethical will have no qualms about signing a contract stating s/he is!  Why offer a contract at all if someone’s morals are in doubt?  One of the things you learn from taking ethics courses (of which I had several) is that, beyond widely agreed-upon standards (it’s wrong to kill, for example, or take something that belongs to someone else) the details quickly fade to gray.  People find ways of living with themselves while trying to survive in society.  An ethics clause in a contract suggests I should live by the standards set by the issuer.  It attempts to vouch for my future behavior without knowing my future circumstances.  I’m all for ethical behavior, and I try to abide by my own moral code daily.  It’s just that putting morality into contracts implies thinking poorly of the party of the second part.  Better to add a sanity clause.

Photo credit: Jörg Bittner Unna, Wikimedia Commons

Amendments

Funny thing about freedom of speech.  It doesn’t really exist in a capitalist system.  Words, I suspect the powers that be know, are extremely potent.  Any system that brooks no rivals will insist on silencing dissidents.  And not just on a national scale.  Several years ago I was interviewed by a Catholic magazine for an editorial position.  I was between jobs and this looked like a good fit; in fact, the woman who arranged the interview told me that if this position didn’t work out they’d likely be able to find a different one for someone with my particular skill set.  When the power that was interviewed me, however, he noted that I had a blog.  “If we hire you, you’ll need to take it down,” he said.  It would confuse readers who might think I was speaking for the Catholic Church.  My candidacy did not proceed.

In a job I would eventually get, in academic publishing, a similar concern was expressed.  Although I hold an earned doctorate from a world-class research university, my opinions might be mistaken for those of some true authority.  Problematic.  This issue keeps coming up.  I write fiction and publish it under a pseudonym.  Sometimes I think about coming out of my literary closet, but the issues pour in hard and fast when the door’s opened.  What would those who read my nonfiction (both of them!) think?  Would I discredit myself because I have too much imagination?  What would an academic employer say?  If I ever went back on the ordination track, would a congregation of any sort understand a clergy person who thinks such things?  I get enough flak from writing about horror films.

The fact is, freedom of expression is very, very limited.  Capitalism measures all things by the bottom line and anything that might cause that trend to waver is forbidden.  Lack of team spirit.  If you want to publish, don’t work in publishing.  It’s like saying (if I might be so bold) that you shouldn’t teach if you earn a doctorate, because you might actually contribute to what we hopefully call knowledge.  This dilemma has become an entrenched part of my psyche.  I grew up innocently writing fiction.  I completed my first stories about the age of 12 or 13.  I was eventually groomed for the ministry and so the fiction had to be set aside as one of those “childish things.”  Was it?  Perhaps.  More likely though, it was simply a lesson that I would find repeated throughout my adult life.  Give lip service to freedom of speech, but don’t ever use it.

Geocheating

So, we geocache.  Not as much as we used to, but over 15 years ago my family and I began the sport and really got into it for a while.  Geocaching involves using a GPS to find a hidden object (“cache”) so that you can log the find.  It’s all in good fun.  The organization that hosts the website also offers the chance to log “trackables”—these are objects with a unique identifier that you sometimes find in caches and you get credit for logging your find.  There are no prizes involved.  We started several of these “travel bugs” ourselves, years ago.  If you started one you got an email when someone logged it, and you could see how far around the world your little bug had gone.  For many years we’ve not heard much about any of ours and assumed them to be MIA.

Recently I started getting several email notices about a resurrected travel bug.  It was as if someone had finally found a cache somewhere deep in the Sahara where it’d been hidden for a decade.  Then I had an email from a fellow cacher, in German.  I figured it must be serious.  The message was that a Facebook page was publishing trackable numbers so that anyone could claim to have found them.  One of ours was on that list.  I went to the page to look.  It said, “Let’s face it, it’s all about the numbers.”  And they proceeded to list hundreds of numbers so that you could claim to have “found” the pieces with your posterior solidly sunk in your favorite chair.  This is annoying not only because we had to pay for the trackable dogtags, but also because it was cheating.  I said as much on the page only to have my comment blocked.

How sad is it when people cheat at a game when there’s no gain?  All they do is claim to have done something they haven’t, for no prize or recognition.  A fun family pastime falls victim to the internet.  Ironically, geocaching was really only possible because of the internet.  It required a place where players could log their finds in a common database.  Facebook, continuing its potential for misuse, allows someone to spoil it.  I, along with my unknown German counterpart, reported the page to the powers that be.  But since we live in a world where the powers that be don’t recognize any rules beyond inflating their own numbers, I shouldn’t be too optimistic of any results.  I guess this is how Republicans play games.

Search Yourself

I was searching for someone on the internet (surprisingly, not myself).  Since this individual didn’t have much of a platform, I looked at MyLife.com.  Such sites draw in the curious and you soon end up paying (I suspect) for any salacious information such as arrest or court records.  In any case, what stood out is that we all presumably have a meter on the site that shows whether we’re good or bad.  It’s like a Leonard Cohen song.  Call me old-fashioned, but that’s what religion used to do.  Some forms of Christianity (Calvinism comes to mind) tell you that you can never be good enough.  Others are more lax (Episcopalians come to mind), as long as you go to mass enough and feel some guilt for misdeeds, you’ll get in.  All the various groups, however, have metrics by which you’re measured, largely based on what you believe.

The odd thing—or one of the odd things—about religion is that it is now categorized as what you believe.  Historically religions began as a kind of bellwether of what you do rather than what you believe.  The two are related, of course.  The motivation behind an action might well be good while the end result is less so.  Secular justice regularly seeks to answer the question of why someone did something.  Was there malice involved?  Aforethought?  Was it an unfortunate accident?  Religion drives over this ground too.  Without getting into the many shades of gray that are morality, value judgments as to the goodness or badness of an action (or a person) were traditionally the purview of religion.

The internet itself has become a kind of god.  We turn to it for all kinds of answers.  It’s both a Bible and encyclopedia rolled into one.  When we want to know something about someone we google them.  Some of us have tried to control the narrative about ourselves by making websites.  (This, of course, presumes others will be interested in us.)  Social media also injects us into larger arteries of traffic.  People judge us by what we post or tweet.  Often without ever meeting us or getting to know who we really are behind our physical walls.  So this person I searched had left little to find.  Scraps here and there.  I didn’t believe everything I saw on MyLife.  After all, not everyone wants to subject her or himself to the constant scrutiny of the connected world.  Maybe it’s a religious thing.

Droning On

According to the New York Times (I don’t have a link, but Google will bring it up), nighttime drone formations have been reported by law enforcement in the Midwest.  These obviously precision formations fly over small towns and prairies in Nebraska and Colorado.  Now, I write what I consider to be horror fiction, but this is downright scary.  We know our government is keeping tabs on us using all kinds of technology, and this could be a government program.  It could also, as the article points out, be the mapping project of some corporation (which can be scarier even than the government), seeking natural resources to exploit.  Twice this past year I’ve spotted mapping cars with their camera-stalks protruding from their roofs, multiple spider-eyes recording roads and their surroundings.  Smile—you’re on candid camera!

At least you could see this kind.

Please don’t think that I suppose myself important enough to be spied upon.  Heck, I can’t even get job interviews and my books don’t sell.  Still, I am concerned about surveillance.  I’ve seen articles suggesting that facial recognition software is now being used by some governments (notably China’s) for keeping track of “people of interest.”  I’m more a person of disinterest, but I thought nothing of pausing long enough for the camera at Heathrow customs to record my face and scan my passport as I entered the UK in June.  Coming back the same thing happened in Newark.  And people wonder why I won’t go into the full body scanners at the airport.  Some bits of personal information, particularly those down south, I’d like to keep out of government hands.

Watching the X-Files again has reawakened my suspicion that there are too many secrets.  Yes, I know the X-Files are fiction.  Still, we know black budgets are as real as the electronic money our banks tell us we have.  And some places aren’t even accepting cash any more.  I have no idea why fleets of drones may be flying over the Midwest, but the fact that it’s happening at night raises all kinds of worries.  The X-Files had us looking for UFOs, but drones come from a far more threatening species.  Technology has no controls built in.  Kids these days can run virtual circles (and very precise ones at that) around my generation.  Listening to them talk tech makes me think English might be a foreign language after all.  Nobody requires a permit to fly over your head and take a look.  While they’re up there, I wonder if I could convince them to take some pictures of my roof.  Those on Google maps don’t give enough resolution to tell the roofers where they should focus next.

New Year Reading

Childhood has a powerful draw.  I first started reading Dark Shadows books when they were published for (I kid you not) 60 cents.  I got them for cheaper than that at Goodwill.  Every time I read one I wonder what my young imagination found so compelling in them, but in an effort to trust my younger self I keep on.  So I read Marilyn Ross’ Barnabas, Quentin and the Witch’s Curse.  The book doesn’t really say anything about a witch’s curse, providing as it does some of the backstory for Quentin.  If you aren’t familiar with that background, and you want to be, Barnabas is a vampire and his cousin Quentin is a werewolf.  Both were made so by curses, a plight the Collins family has long faced.  

In recent years I have read the 19 volumes in the series preceding this one.  They tend to be formulaic, and often show the signs of having been written quickly.  W. E. D. Ross is sometimes listed as the most prolific Canadian author ever.  He wrote over 300 books, mostly in genre fiction.  It’s no wonder many of them sound the same.  Still, I have to admit that both from watching Dark Shadows and from reading these novels as a kid, I liked Quentin.  Yes, he was smug and self-confident, but as a werewolf he had the ability to become someone else.  Unlike other books in the series, this one focuses on Quentin and points a pretty heavy finger to him being a Satanist.  That seemed pretty harsh to me.  There’s a difference between being the victim of a curse and being a Devil worshipper.

Now I know I shouldn’t take this as belles lettres.  Ross is not remembered as a great stylist, master of character development, or for being all that creative.  Dark Shadows was a soap opera—one of the more intelligent of the genre—and there’s only so much you can do with it.  Satanism was a cultural concern in the 1970s.  In the following decades it would bloom into an outright panic.  I’m pretty sure that I never read this particular volume when I was young.  Even now as a relatively mature man I found the implications somewhat disturbing.  The Scooby-Doo ending doesn’t do much to ameliorate the undercurrent of evil.  Quentin always seemed like such a sympathetic character to me.  Maybe it just goes to show what happens when you go for a quick read rather than choosing a book of substance.  Childhood can be that way.

Writing Prophets

So I was sitting at a table with two writers I’d just met.  It was at the Easton Book Festival and since I’m new to the area I was very aware that I didn’t know anybody.  I was also aware that my book, Holy Horror, wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen, despite it being mid-October.  As we were talking my two interlocutors mentioned the advances they’d received for their books, one of whom was able to buy a house with said advance.  As I listened I kept my mouth shut, because that’s polite, even though my jaw was slack.  The other person hadn’t been able to buy a house, but after writing on a topic so obscure I can’t remember it, had been able to do something noteworthy with the advance.  My royalties from Holy Horror wouldn’t have covered the cost of this dinner.

In the weeks following the festival—always busy with AAR/SBL looming, then Thanksgiving, then December—I began some soul-searching.  What was I doing wrong?  I also did some web-searching.  One of the articles that came up, written by a business writer, suggested pulling up your socks and getting to it, demanding money for your writing.  I don’t see anywhere to put a coin slot on this blog, which is more of a labor of love than anything anyway.  Then the kicker came.  This business writer cited Hosea 4.6, “My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge,” as the basis of why people would pay for content.  Now pardon me for taking things a little literally, but I doubt Hosea was in the business of giving business advice.  The knowledge people lack, in context, is knowledge of Yahweh.

Now here I was back on familiar territory.  I’ve taught classes on Hosea, and this intriguing prophet was commenting on Israel’s lack of knowledge of God’s ways.  There were some folks akin to prosperity gospelers back in the pre-Gospel days, suggesting that if you kept God happy rewards would roll your way, but history had other plans.  Israel fell to the Assyrians shortly after Hosea’s time, his writing advice apparently unheeded.  As I revise Nightmares with the Bible for publication—the reviewer felt it was too tradey—I have to wonder about my conversation back in October.  Neither book of my conversation partners was one of broad appeal.  In fact, the second was rather technical.  They had, however, been paid for their work.  Academic publishing is built on the paradigm that the writer already has a university job and doesn’t need the money.  Hosea also said, if I recall, something about what happens if you sow the wind.