Kind Animals

How many people could it be?  That’s the question a pandemic naturally raises.  Last weekend my wife and I ventured to a Vegan Festival in Easton.  Since we vegans are a rare bunch anyway, and since we tend to be socially conscious, there wasn’t likely to be any dangerous behavior.  That, and how many people would actually show up for what is often considered a somewhat wobbly crowd who don’t like to “rise, kill, and eat.”  It felt like a safe place to be with socially distanced kindred spirits.  Everyone was wearing masks and there was no Trump bravado going on.  For a moment it reminded me of the kind of accepting country the United States used to be.

Veganism, you see, isn’t just about not eating and not exploiting animals.  It’s about honoring the wonder of life in all creatures.  I realize some of the issues—believe me, I try to think things through thoroughly.  It’s all about consciousness.  We’re still a considerable distance from being able to define it, and some people, like philosopher Thomas Nagel, believe it might go all the way down and through the plant kingdom as well.  Consciousness is one of the great mysteries of science.  We hardly know what it is, and how are we to know where it stops?  If we assume other people are conscious (with a few notable exceptions) based on their words and actions, might we not suppose at least some of the “higher” animals are as well?  Or are you just being a fool when you talk to your dog?

You see how this naturally suggests consciousness may lessen by matters of degree, but then we learn that even some insects know how to count and can understand a concept of zero (beyond most Republicans).  We like to put insects down at the bottom because we’re bigger and therefore more important.  Veganism suggests that we stop and think about these things.  We don’t necessarily take everything for granted.  It is clear that the largest polluter and environmental problem is industrial animal farming.  Rainforests are cleared for grazing land.  Profits from big agra are staggering.  Wandering through the stalls, keeping our distance from others who perhaps think too much, we partook of the counterculture in our own quiet way.  The street festival was small this year, but I do have hopes that it might grow, along with some serious thinking about the consequences of our actions.  

The Parable of the Dates

Speaking of resurrection, a news story I saw on Agade, apparently originating in the New York Times, tells of dates.  The kind you eat.  These dates were newsworthy because they were grown from seeds two millennia old, found in an archaeological dig in Israel.  The story shows just how tenacious life can be.  Seeds dead for centuries came back to life and bore fruit.  Things like this fill me with an optimism about this thing we call life.  Two thousand years is a long time to be buried.  These seeds nevertheless came back when the conditions were right.  There’s a parable here.  The parable of the dates.

Tardigrades are remarkable.  Sometimes known as “water bears” or “moss piglets,” they are actually microscopic animals.  Google them and take a look.  The amazing thing about tardigrades is their ability to survive.  Although they are animals, they can go three decades without food or water.  (Not quite the same as two millennia, but trees have their own remarkable abilities.)  Tardigrades can survive temperatures as low as absolute zero and higher than boiling.  Scientists study what makes these little critters so sturdy, but the takeaway for me is that life is remarkably resilient.  Given that Republicans and their ilk seem set on destroying the planet, it is comforting to know that life will continue, even if without our particular species to appreciate it.

The idea has been expressed in many ways over the years.  Doctor Malcolm in Jurassic Park says “Life will find a way.”  Stephen Jay Gould wrote in Bully for Brontosaurus that when we talk of the destruction of the earth what we really mean is the end of our own survival.  The planet—life—can and will persist.  The funny thing is that we don’t really have an accurate understanding of what life is.  If a tardigrade can be revived after thirty years without water, isn’t this an exuberant expression of what life can do?  And what about the Galapagos Tortoise, surviving a century-and-a-half?  If we leave them alone, sea creatures can live even longer.  Bowhead whales last two hundred years while at least one Greenland shark doubled that.  And the news story about dates raised from two-thousand-year-old seeds indicates something wondrous about life.  It persists.  These dates are from the time of Jesus and the Roman Empire.  Some trees, such as the bristlecone pine, have been continuously alive for double that span.  We should be in awe of life.  And we should act like it, for it will outlive us by a long stretch.

Documentary

It all comes down to people and honesty.  Given the bald-faced lies that come from the White House these days, honesty is at a premium.  There are, however, always people involved.  And with people you never know.  This issue arises because I’ve been watching documentaries.  A documentary is classified as a nonfiction genre, but it will nevertheless have a point of view.  You need to question yourself about the motives of the writers and directors.  What are they trying to say?  Are they slanting the narrative a little too much in their own direction?  In cases like Ken Burns’ works, there’s little doubt everything is well researched and well funded.  They inspire confidence.  But I also watch more questionable films.

Recently I saw My Amityville Horror, a prolonged interview with Danny Lutz, the oldest child featured in the book and film.  In true documentary style, others are interviewed, some of them skeptics.  The film pointed notes that Lutz’s brother and sister declined to be part of it.  Lutz makes the case throughout that these things really did happen.  He’s obviously not a rich man—he drives truck for UPS—but he’s sincere.  Others interviewed cast doubts on the memories of over three decades’ fermentation.  The point of view here is one that seems to believe Lutz, who is a no-nonsense kind of guy.  At the very end when asked if he’d take a lie detector test, however, the subject seizes up.  It leaves the viewer wondering if we’ve all be taken down the garden path.  Is he an honest man or is he hoping to supplement his income?

A couple weeks later I watched Hostage to the Devil, a documentary on the life of Malachi Martin.  Martin was never a figure without controversy, and it seems that he enjoyed it.  Interviews with friends, and even the agent who did quite well from his book that shares the title of the documentary, argue for his sincerity.  The major players in the field, those who are still living, in any case, all make appearances.  The question that hangs in the air, although the documentary seems to lean towards his validation, is whether Martin was an honest man.  We always have to ask that question when money is involved.  Martin’s book, Hostage to the Devil, has sold over a million copies.  It made a living for an ex-Jesuit who then became part of the media circuit.  It leaves more questions than answers.  I wonder how Ken Burns would handle such topics.

Propaganda

“[F]or the most part, thinking is inherently and irrepressibly liberal.”  As much as those who’ve drunk the Trump Kool-Aid (watered down, for sure) might want to deny it, these words by Jeff Kripal are true.  Thinking itself is nearly always a liberal activity.  This election has become one of propaganda versus thinking.  Propaganda is, according to Oxford Languages, “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.”  People who, I know for a fact, were taught about propaganda in high school (lots of little heads were nodding yes that they understood what propaganda was and then nodding no that they were never fall for it) have now jumped onto Trump’s propaganda bandwagon, claiming that facts are “liberal hoaxes.”  Thinking is liberal.  Thinking hoaxes, I guess.

Liberals, as I’ve stated repeatedly, don’t take anyone’s word for it.  We fact-check.  Herein lies the difference.  If Joe Biden were to state that Democrats couldn’t win without cheating in the election, liberals would be all over this, fact-checking.  Where did he get this idea?  Did he cite his sources?  Does science concur?  And then if he were to lie about having said it, liberals would point out the contradiction.  Trump’s followers, who have nearly four years of massive lies, well documented, taped, and public, to draw upon, simply deny he said them.  The “liberal hoax” they cite is propaganda, by definition.  It is not to be fact-checked because they might not like what fact-checking reveals.  In high school we were taught about Nazi propaganda.  We all understood.  Now we conveniently forget.

This election is about trying to bring a deeply divided nation back together again.  Trump’s lies from day one (biggest inauguration ever, although those of us actually there could see the lie clearly) have been about dividing and conquering.  Most Trump supporters have no idea what liberals are.  The very definition of liberal concerns broadening knowledge.  Higher education teaches us not to take anyone’s word for it.  Not only do Trump supporters accept his lies about liberal hoaxes, they simply dismiss the fact that liberals’ greatest critics are other liberals.  We don’t sit around coming up with hoaxes—we hardly agree with one another!  The most insidious thing about all of this propaganda is that Trump supporters distrust those who’ve seen behind the screen.  They won’t, however, look for themselves.  All the news from all the world lies, they say, if it doesn’t support Trump.  Thinking back to high school, I can imagine no better way to illustrate propaganda.  At least to those who were willing to pay attention to their teachers.  For those who refuse to learn, education itself is all a hoax.

Looks more like today, America under Trump…

Defining Evil

Recently someone said, in a conversation in which I was involved, that understanding evil as entirely a human construct wasn’t working for her.  This particular person is rational, with a scientific outlook, and very politically aware.  There was a pause among the others in the conversation, almost as if embarrassed.  Can anyone admit the existence of evil these days without at least a chaser of irony?  I have to admit that I too was caught off-guard, but for different reasons.  I guess I have always supposed the struggle of good and evil was obvious.  If I hadn’t thought in these terms the last four years in the United States would’ve convinced me.  The degenerate depths to which corruption in this country have sunk leave me hard-pressed for any other answer.  

With an enabling Republican senate, a president who won a contested election with the help of a foreign nation with clear wishes to destabilize the United States (they succeeded), is now trying to destroy the Post Office so that voting by mail can’t be effective.  He does this in the wake of a pandemic for which he personally largely bears the blame.  Instead of admitting that he’s unaware of how to fix the mess he’s made, his focus is solely on keeping himself in power.  Exposé after exposé has been published, but the desire to hold power has blinded an entire political party to the natural correctives built into the system.  What is the use of stacking the judiciary, Mr. McConnell, if the nation you wish to judge falls apart under your watch?  What good are federal judges in a nation gone amuck?

A government, any government, that devalues any classes of human beings—be they of different ethnic backgrounds, differently gendered, or in some way disabled—is participating in what simply can’t be chalked up to bad behavior.  Well over 150,000 US citizens have died from a pandemic that is still receiving a blind eye by the Grand Old Party.  Confused, the sheep of those diabolical feedlot owners think the whole thing is a hoax and refuse to wear masks, making them into a political statement.  They will be sacrificed on the altar of retaining power.  In the Bible the figure that acted like this was called Molech.  Now those who support it are called Evangelicals.  My friend in this conversation, I believe, was struggling to come up with a way to understand what she sees happening around her.  Although taught that there is no such thing as objective evil, she wonders how to make sense of what’s obvious to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear.

Laboring

I can remember when Labor Day was about honoring workers.  I suppose it still is, in some circles.  At the top, however, the strategy is to give all the breaks to the wealthy and convince those they exploit that it’s for their own good.  In as far as Trump has a playbook, this is on page 1.  All around the community I see poor, exploited people with Trump signs on their houses.  And they’re big.  Great.  Never been bigger signs.  The policies he’s enacted, however, have taken money from their pockets and lined those of the wealthy.  Why do you think he refuses to share his tax records?  Tax fraud is a crime.  If you’re a laborer, anyway.

I grew up working class and I still think that way.  I’m skeptical, though.  I don’t take anyone’s word for it.  That’s what happens when you become a professional researcher.  Looking at actions instead of words is most instructive.  As my step-father used to tell us, “Do as I say, not as I do.”  Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.  Just let him pick your pocket and tell you he’s been on your side all along.  Can Labor Day be anything other than a lie under such circumstances?  The American aristocracy has both a firm grip and tax incentives not to improve the lot of those who are barely getting by.  And yet we take a day off and pretend that everything’s fine.

Polls repeatedly show that those in power have no idea of the realities of the lives of the working class.  They can’t name the price of a loaf of bread and, especially in the present day, don’t care to.  Many people in the United States fear socialism.  Ironically, many of them are “Christians” who completely ignore the socialism of the book of Acts.  Early believers, the Good Book says, pooled their resources and shared everything out equally.  It’s a pity it didn’t last.  Nations with socialized medicine—the only humane way to live—have handled the pandemic better than those that rely on health insurance at the same time its own government is trying to dismantle the only plan that would cover everyone.  Why do we find it so hard to care for the workers?  Maybe this Labor Day we can stop and think for a little while where we’d be without those who actually keep things going.  And maybe in November we’ll vote to help them out.

What Labor Day used to be; courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Walnuts

The walnuts are always the first to turn.  At least around here they are.  Their yellow leaves began to litter the bike path in August.  Their nuts can be quite a hazard to a jogger if it’s not quite light.  Still jacketed with their spherical rind, an unexpected foot landing on one can lead to a rolled ankle or even a fall on the pea gravel.  Such incidents led me to wait until it’s light enough to see clearly before going out for a jog.  You see, I like to exercise before starting work, so I jog at first light.  In June this can mean heading out even before five if the weather’s clear.  Since I start work around 6:30 this is a comfortable time to go.  Nobody else is on the bike path then.  And with Covid lurking, that’s a good thing.

The earliest sunrise comes about a week before the summer solstice.  By the time summer officially begins I already have to delay my jog slightly.  This is one of the great disappointments about Daylight Saving Time.  After winter’s long darkness, it starts to get light in the morning and I think to myself “I’ll soon be able to jog before work again,” but then we set the clocks back and set sunrise progress back by another month.  During the darkling months of the year I have to jog at lunchtime.  The changing walnuts always warn me that such a time is drawing near.  Already here in early September I’m getting back late for my usual work time since the sun is reluctant to throw its first crepuscular rays over the brow of the hill before six a.m.  The problem with this is that many more people are out on the bike trail at six than I ever see at five.  And often they don’t care to share.

There are a couple of older guys who walk abreast, taking up pretty much the whole trail every day now.  They hear me coming, look back, but like the marching band in “American Pie,” refuse to yield.  Single file for them is a sign of weakness.  I have to divert into the dew-soaked grass on chilly mornings to get around them with my now-wet feet.  I long for the days when I could easily jog before they even think of heading out to the trail.  The solitude of half-light.  The walnuts are the prophets of the tree world, however.  Their fruit is both nutritious and dangerous.  Scattered across the trail in the persistent dusk of a cloudy morning, they’re both a hazard and a warning.  And it’s a sign that the morning jog may already have to wait until mid-May to reappear.

A Little Bit

I don’t know about you, but I have a complicated relationship with genres.  As a fiction writer I have great difficulty classifying what I write, and that shows in the reluctance of publishers to embrace it.  We tend to suppose that some kinds of Platonic types exist out there by which we can map what we find here in the physical world.  These genres, however, are far more permeable than they seem.  My wife and I just finished watching the eight-part Ken Burns documentary Country Music.  Neither one of us is what you might call a fan of the genre but I can say that I learned an awful lot.  My stepfather was a country music fan, so many of the names and songs, particularly of the early years, were familiar.  What became clear throughout the century or so covered by the films was that the dividing line was always a blurry one.

While today we tend to think of country music as a southern phenomenon, the documentary made clear that its beginnings were folk music.  And folk lived most places.  While certain styles predominated in certain ages, across the years it was hard to tell some country music from pop music and rock (especially in the early days of the latter).  Even rock is difficult to classify.  What it often comes down to is self-identification.  An artist or band that identifies as country is country.  It is a distinctly American art form and it quite often identifies with religion.  Like rock, it also has some roots in gospel music.  When it becomes secular, gospel can go into many unexpected places.

Another association—again, a generalization—is country music and conservatism.  Partly it’s the promoting of Americanism, but partly it’s based on a false perception.  Performers are actors, after all.  Many of the “clean cut” examples of country singers struggled constantly with drug abuse (often considered the demon of rock-n-roll) and alcoholism.  It’s often right there in the lyrics.  The listeners, however, tend to think of them as stories.  That was the other great takeaway from the series—people are drawn to the stories.  I think that’s something we all know, but country music often excels at the hard-luck story that resonates with people down on their circumstances.  I’m not about to become a country music fan, but watching this series, like any educational venture, has opened me to a new tolerance for what I previously classified as a genre that didn’t have any appeal.

Laughing Maher

I recently rewatched Bill Maher’s Religulous.  I posted on it some years ago, but time changes perspectives.  Thinking back over the fun he makes against the religious, it is really only the Fundamentalist stripe that he scorns.  Whether Christian, Islamic, or even Jewish, he has little tolerance for those who take their sacred texts literally.  The Vatican scientist he interviews makes it through unscathed, but mainly because he’s arguing Maher’s point that the Fundamentalists aren’t at all stable.  Having noted that, Maher barely scratches the patina of the whole wide spectrum of religious outlooks.  Many of them are quite sensible, and some don’t even rely on the supernatural.  What he seems to have overlooked is that there is a vast complexity to religious thinking and people who believe aren’t always benighted.

Long, hard reflection on religion may be rare, but traditionally the seminary was the vehicle for those with the capacity for such thinking.  (Today seminaries are likely to accept just about any applicant and churches are facing shortages of clergy, making the rigorous thinking an elective course.)  It’s easy to make fun of the monks in their scriptoria, but those who learned to think logically—scientifically even—about matters of belief informed the best philosophers and other ”thought leaders” of the time.  If religion was the inspiration of scientific thinking (which then developed into humanism), it can’t be all bad.  Certainly there are and always have been abuses of the system.  Like science itself, thinking through this is a complex exercise.

Religulous is a fun movie.  Bill Maher is a likable narrator and he admits, at several points, to not knowing whether there is a God or not.  It is pretty easy to spot those whose religious beliefs are really more scarecrows than solid granite.  Literalism is pretty indefensible in the age of smartphones and the internet.  We’ve been far enough into space to know there’s no literal Heaven “up there.”  But this doesn’t mean religion has no value.  Many, many sensible religious people exist.  Most of them don’t cause trouble for society or embarrassment for their co-religionists.  Extremists, however, do both.  Unswayed by the damage they do, convinced with no evidence beyond personal feeling, they are willing to risk very high stakes indeed.  Those are the ones Maher is trying to take to task in his documentary.  On the ground religions are complex and psychologically helpful.  Complex subjects, as any thinker knows, bear deep reflection.

Never Too Late

In these weary days of bleak news, I’m always glad to find a bit of cheer.  A friend recently shared the story of Giuseppe Paternò from The Guardian.  Paternò is a 96-year-old first time college graduate.  As the story explains Paternò had wanted to attend college his entire life but being raised in poverty he never had the opportunity.  We all know how life is a rushing river that snatches you in its current, and thus Paternò found himself unable to attain his dream.  Until his nineties.  Just this year he graduated from the University of Palermo.  What really spoke to me about this story is that Paternò is now considering working on his master’s degree.  While some might wonder if this is practical, to me it demonstrates that knowledge is never wasted.

We live in an era where education is seen as either a useless luxury or as just another business.  Both views are fatal to our civilization.  We have reached where we are by progressively educating our young (and old) so that our collective knowledge-base grows.  When education is seen as a business (and I saw this in my ill-fated university teaching career) it becomes something different.  This isn’t on the part of the faculty, for the most part, but on administrations.  Paying corporate-level salaries to administrators—schools top-heavy with deans—they can’t afford to hire faculty and cut departments that aren’t profitable.  Knowledge, in turn, suffers.  Paternò, I sincerely hope, avoided the politics of academia.  A man hungry for knowledge, he studied philosophy at an age when most of us think people should just sit around and stare at the walls all day.  Knowledge should never be wasted.

Those of us who’ve been excluded from the academy sometimes try to continue our contribution.  Some of us still write books and articles.  It does nothing for our promotion or tenure.  It certainly doesn’t bear much in royalties.  “Why do it?” a friend once asked me.  When we cease seeking knowledge we stagnate and die.  We see this playing out in the politics of our day.  Washington houses many who see education as a threat to the unrestrained acquisition of mere money.  This is why universities suffer—they are not businesses.  One size does not fit all.  At their best they’re places where those of us raised in poverty can go to have our eyes opened.  And they are places where even nonagenarians can go to contribute to the growth of knowledge.

Enough

Stories of the wealthy never interest me unless they have a mysterious, ageless cousin who’s really a vampire.  Unfortunately fantasy can’t save us from the reality of a once great nation that’s now crumbling.  As I wrote earlier on this particular book, we already know, at some level, what it says.  Mary L. Trump, who alone has courage among her family, exposes quite a lot in Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.  There’s no point in ascribing blame for deeds done.  I also fear there’s no hope that justice will ever be served in this case.  Dysfunctional families are all too real and all too common.  Some of the traits (but none of the money) from Fred Trump’s cruelty were as familiar to me as my own childhood.  A powerful, overbearing stepfather riddled with a sense of his own inadequacy, taking it out in his own empire within the walls of his house.  The damaged children it leaves behind, each struggling to cope in their own way.

The family Fred Trump raised was bound to become damaged goods.  It is to the everlasting shame of the Republican Party that it could come up with no other viable candidate for the highest office in the land.  Not so long ago I would’ve written “world,” by that day’s gone past us.  Not only did “the party” accept his nomination, it has enabled him, as Mary Trump shows, every step of the way.  Knowing that something is deeply wrong—that more people will have to die in this country of Covid-19 than anywhere else, just to stoke one man’s ego—and refusing to act should be a sin in anybody’s book.  Who still emerges as his defender?  The Evangelical.  This mess is so convoluted that it will take historians (presuming anyone survives it) decades to try to unravel it.  That’s because nobody in the GOP has any empathy for those already born.  Strange form of “Christianity,” that.

This book is a depressing read.  Still, I’m glad I did it.  Not that it will change much.  Those who are psychologically like Trump, incapable of distinguishing truth from fiction, will say it’s all lies.  You can always play that card.  There are facts, however, and they are recorded.  Those who are able to weigh evidence know (and already knew) that a dangerous man had been coddled by a dangerous party that puts self-interest over nation.  You know, I think there may be a vampire in this story after all, but I just don’t have the heart to look any further.

Narrow Passage

While on a rare family visit (it’s scary to get out too much) we visited Watkins Glen State Park in upstate New York.  My mother’s family has roots in this area, and we’ve visited it several times in the past.  There are always people there, but in manageable numbers.  The website declared it was mandatory to wear a mask (“New York tough”!) and to keep social distancing.  It perhaps didn’t help that we went during a heat wave when a walk along a waterfall-laced path seemed like a refreshing idea.  I guess I had in my head the modest crowds we’d encountered in our many past visits.  We were, however, not the only tourists (although somewhat local) with that particular plan.  Not by any metric I can conceive.

If you’ve never been to Watkins Glen, the park has a Civilian Conservation Corp-built stairway and trail (approximately 600 stairs) through a glacial and water-cut gorge.  The sedimentary layers are fascinating for anyone with an interest in geology and for those who like to ponder the millions of years required for the laying down and lifting up of multiple bedding planes.  The gorge itself has a curvilinear appeal that is almost mystical.  Waterfalls produce negative ions which, everyone knows, tend to make people happy.  I was, however, more on the terrified side of the spectrum.  It became clear even before we reached the gorge that there were hundreds of people already in the park.  Most of them unmasked.  Large crowds gathered around the more picturesque waterfalls, blocking the narrow walkways.  Tourists have no idea what “six feet” might possibly mean.  Stair-climbing is an aerobic exercise, and wearing a mask in such circumstances is the only smart thing to do.

While on the considerably less crowded trails of the Pennsylvania outdoors venues we more commonly frequent, I’m nervous when someone walks even more than six feet away in the opposite direction.  This felt like a nightmare to me.  Too many people paying too little heed to the mandated caution.  I’ll be quarantining myself for two weeks for sure.  Maybe more.  I don’t get out much in any case, but even though we were obstructing our view through cloudy glasses and trying to get adequate oxygen through made-to-specification cloth masks, there’s only so much that prophylactics can do.  I jog at first light to avoid other health nuts on the local trails.  I go to stores only for necessities.  Being in a canyon with the careless invincibles inspired less than confidence in this petrified pilgrim.  Knowing human nature, it seems closing popular state parks until people get smart may be the best way out of a tight squeeze.

No So Innocent

Mark Twain’s best-selling book in his own lifetime was his first commercially produced one: The Innocents Abroad.  Originally a set of letters sent during an excursion to parts of the Mediterranean basin with stops in Europe and the Levant, it’s difficult to read today.  Although satirical with much of it clearly for fun, Twain’s humor about those other than Americans embodies an attitude that would fit into Trump’s America a little too comfortably.  Other religions are strange and therefore wrong, for example.  People in the regions visited did not bathe frequently enough and were often singled out for their looks.  There’s something rascally about the behavior of the American visitors, chipping away at monuments so that they might take a piece of history home with them, yet never failing to feel superior.

I had to remind myself constantly that this is a period piece.  It contains much of the gritty humor for which Twain became justly famous.  Travel broadened him also.  A southern abolitionist, Twain nevertheless never overcame some of the racism into which he was born.  My wife and I were reading the book because of its early description of western visits to Palestine (there was no Israel at the time).  Keeping in mind that travel to much of that part of the world was expensive (his trip was sponsored by the newspaper for which he worked) and difficult, his account is actually one of the early modern travelogues on what would eventually become a fairly common pilgrimage.  Twain, like all of us, was a product of his time.

Twain’s diary famously reveals what he came to believe about religion.  There are inklings of it here.  Although he refers to the manner of dress of the ship’s passengers as “Christian,” and although he casts aspersions on Islam frequently, he reserves his most biting humor for his own brand.  During their visit to Smyrna (one of the seven cities of the book of Revelation), for example,  he writes, “Thick-headed commentators upon the Bible, and stupid preachers and teachers, work more damage to religion than sensible, cool-brained clergymen can fight away again, toil as they may” (page 327 from the 2018 SeaWolf Press edition).  Still, the assumption of the rightness of Christianity is something that he would eventually come to question.  His humor does often fall flat in an era of government support of racist, sexist tropes.  And the impressions made on those they met was summed up in his contractually-obligated note to the paper: “Many and many a simple community in the Eastern hemisphere will remember for years the incursion of that strange horde in the year of our Lord 1867, that called themselves Americans, and seemed to imagine in some unaccountable way that they had a right to be proud of it” (page 526).  Some things, it seems, haven’t changed despite the time elapsed.

Who Watches You

When my wife saw Dominic Johnson’s God Is Watching You on the top of my pile she said “Are you sure you want to be reading that?”  Her question was justified, of course.  I was raised in a religion where the punishment of God was very much on the surface.  Heaven’s carrot was nothing next to Hell’s stick.  I still suffer from that religious outlook in innumerable ways.  Johnson’s subtitle, however, is How the Fear of God Makes Us Human.  Johnson, who holds doctorates in evolutionary biology and political science, is well placed to try to untangle what those of us with just one doctorate in religious studies deal with constantly: what is religion?  The main idea of the book is deceptively simple—we have evolved the way we have because we feared (and continue to fear) supernatural punishment.

Johnson establishes that sociological and anthropological studies have shown that humans respond much more readily to punishment than reward.  Reward is like icing—you can eat a cake without it and still enjoy it—while punishment is like the threat of all food being removed.  You see the difference?  One has a far greater motivating factor than the other.  This idea spins out into many aspects of religion, and even perhaps hints at the origins of religion itself.  I have often written on this blog that animals exhibit religious behavior.  We don’t speak their language so we can’t know for sure, but some of what various animals do seems very much like what we do in church, synagogue, mosque, or gurdwara.  Accusations of anthropomorphism fall flat, to me.  We evolved, did we not?  Then why do we resist pointing out in animals where that behavior sticks out like a sore opposable thumb?

Human societies worldwide share the fear of divine punishment.  Interestingly, even a significant portion of atheists admit fearing it too.  Often those who know me ask about my preoccupation with fear.  It sometimes shows in my writing about horror, but I think Johnson may well have the key in his pocket.  Religion is about fear.  It’s not just about fear, but it clearly is about avoiding divine (however defined) wrath.  Lose a job or two broadly defined as religious and disagree with me.  Am I sure that I should be reading this book?  Now that I’ve finished it I can definitively say “yes.”  While I don’t agree with everything in it Johnson has clearly hit on something that all people who study religion should know.

November Dreaming

I recently took part in a non-partisan postcard-writing effort sponsored by Moms Rising.  The idea is simple enough: encourage people to get out and vote.  Such is the state of our country that some people see this as a liberal agenda.  An anti-patriotic act.  Who would object to people voting (apart from the Republican Party, that is)?  Apparently we’re now simply supposed to accept what the present administration hands down, including its desire to retain power legally or illegally.  Those who suggest that people should be given their constitutional voices are considered radicals.  This would be ironic were it not so dangerous.  The only reason the powers that be are in office is because of an election, and one that was “won” by that gaming of the system known as the electoral college.  Now that Covid-19 is ravaging our country, those who refuse to do anything about it want to strengthen their grip.  And their followers blindly say “Amen.”

Postcard writing does not involve telling the potential electorate whom to choose.  The message we’re instructed to write is simply encouraging others to vote.  Gerrymandering and making people stand in Covid-laced long lines have been “tactics” used by current supporters of the modern-day plague to keep their hold on power.  When trying to get people to vote is considered an act of sedition we need to stop and think what democracy has become.  If you don’t believe everyone should vote then you have no right to object—your voice is your vote.  I stand with Moms Rising to test the room.  Let’s see if what’s happening here is really the will of the people.  And I don’t mean that house of lower education, the so-called electoral college.

If you’re inclined to help with the effort, all it costs is a little time.  Check out Moms Rising’s website.  They’ll send you a packet of postcards for free with a postage-paid envelope to mail them back.  All you need to do is write a sentence or two in the blank space on the back, put the cards in the envelope, and drop it in a mailbox.  It costs so little and so much is at stake.  Time is a commodity, I know.  Given that our time is running out, however, it seems that sparing a bit of it to keep democracy breathing is important.  No— vital.  My regular readers know how I often express my wish/need for just a little more time to accomplish what I’d like to squeeze into a day.  I’ll gladly sacrifice ten minutes for the good of the country I call home.