Tis a Season

halloweenI always seem to be running late. Still, I wanted to be reading a book about Halloween on Halloween. If I might be pardoned for bleeding over into All Saints’ Day, I’ll share some thoughts this November on Nicholas Rogers’ Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Academic treatments of holidays, I fear, often suffer because of dispassion. Academics tend to emulate Spock in their writing, and I think that those who write about Halloween should really “get” Halloween. Oh, one can discourse about its quaint history in this ever so rational world, but one might just miss what the whole thing is about. To be fair, Rogers was writing his book during the trauma of 9/11. He wonders if Halloween may be fading. Nashotah House was suffering under an evangelical administration at that time, and the usual Halloween spirit was muted. Some fifteen years on it seems that Halloween earns yet more money and people admit that it’s hip to be scared.

Rogers gives a brief treatment of the early, but hidden, history of the holiday. The Celts weren’t much into writing about their festivals and invaders didn’t think much of their quotidian life to begin with. Trying to understand Halloween from modern times, piecing the puzzle together back over time, doesn’t really help much either. Treating the day in its British context, then in its American context, Rogers favors a thematic approach. His section on Halloween movies is interesting. Like most modern treatments of the holiday, his book makes comparison with el Dia de los Muertos, and the usual complaints of cultural imperialism. Maybe Halloween is just too much fun to pass up. It also means this post isn’t that outdated.

Nobody owns Halloween. It is taken as a serious holiday by some Wiccans, but liturgical Christians are far more intense about today, All Saints’ Day. It isn’t a national holiday and no national government decides the correct day for trick-or-treating. Perhaps prophetically Chris Christie cancelled Halloween the year of Hurricane Sandy, but did he really? Sitting in the dark for a few days with evenings lit by candles—some of them in Halloween holders—felt pretty spooky to me. Halloween may be a source of intellectual curiosity, but it is a holiday you either get or you don’t. October is its prelude, November is its aftermath. It is, as the Celts used to believe, when cold weather seriously begins to take over and light is a rapidly vanishing commodity. I may be a day late, but Halloween isn’t quite over yet.

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.

Let There Be

President Dwight D. Eisenhower was, as everyone knows, a military man. With the role of Commander in Chief, United States Presidents control a military that eats up an enormous amount of tax dollars. To keep us safe, we’re told. Even though he was a military man, in his farewell address Eisenhower warned the American people of the Industrial Military Complex, a group of companies that not only eat national budgets for breakfast, but also control the most dangerous technology in the world. Secrecy, we’re told, is key. We don’t want any other nation on earth knowing what we’re up to. In fact, most Americans have no idea of and no control over what we’re up to. When people like Edward Snowden come out, their tales are so extreme that it is fairly easy to dismiss them. Would a good government ever do that? Nah. We’re the good guys, right? These were the thoughts going through my head after I watched Star Trek Into Darkness. I always run a couple years behind, it seems, on major movies. This one disturbed me in a way uncharacteristic of the Enterprise and its crew.

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Since it’s been out a couple of years I don’t need to give spoiler alerts unless some readers are even further behind than me. Okay: here’s a spoiler alert.

As James T. Kirk gets busted down in rank for violating the prime directive to save Spock, he takes over the Enterprise when Admiral Pike is gunned down in a top-level Star Fleet meeting. Vowing revenge, he encounters Khan, the eponymous villain of the old series Wrath of Khan. As Admiral Marcus had made an alliance with Khan the parallels with the Bush family and Sadam Hussein became clear. And when Scotty finds a super starship on a moon of Jupiter, secretly developed by Star Fleet to go to war with the Klingons, more than a touch of the Black Ops came to mind. Here was a government that couldn’t be trusted and that didn’t trust its people to know its intentions. When Khan pilots this Black Ops starship into San Francisco, the shot of it falling out of the air so resembled classified military craft that I actually shuddered. The destruction was a parable of 9/11.

Throughout the movie there is a dialog of ethics. Is it right to kill a known criminal without trial? Is it permissible to start an unprovoked war? Does might make right? Khan, despite being evil, tells the truth. The movie disturbed me because I can’t remember the last time I could truly trust the government. I vote Democrat because they are the party that seem to do the least damage to the planet and actually care for the poor. I was born, however, after the Eisenhower administration. John F. Kennedy was assassinated after my first birthday. My reading since leaving college has convinced me that we will never get the full story. Star Trek, although set in the future, has always been a projection of the present day. Those few groaners of episodes from the late ‘60s that delved into popular culture proved that. As I watched the crew of the Enterprise battling an enemy under its own flag I realized little has changed in the final frontier.

The Day After

I don’t mean to be insensitive. Sometimes I get so busy that I don’t even look at the date for days at a time. This can’t be good, but I was surprised when the anniversary of 9/11 caught me completely unawares this year. That’s the kind of summer it’s been. Not acknowledging 9/11 to New Yorkers is like making ethnic jokes—it’s inherently offensive. The City is always subdued on this date of infamy. Coming the same week as Labor Day this year, I think my timing was just off. In my family, September was always the month of birthdays. My present to my brother of the 12th was late in 2001. I wanted to find something old. Something solid. Something time-honored. I wanted a sense of stability to return to a chaotic world. Being an inveterate fossil collector, I went to a local rock shop and bought him a fossilized cepholapod shell. It wasn’t much, but it was a message and a metaphor.

Today, being a birthday and a day after, feels a little like an apology to me. At the time of 9/11 I knew a few colleagues teaching in New York, but in 2001 I’d not really known the city. I’d visited a few times. I was still employed, although my personal career trauma was, unknown to me, already underway. And looking at the state of the world some fourteen years later, I wonder how much better things are. We haven’t suddenly improved, and as a nation we seem more deeply divided than ever. Candidates who resemble their caractitures more than actual people frighten me. The rhetoric is a sermon of doom. Have we all forgotten how that morning felt?

Television reception was poor, or it may have been the tears falling from my eyes as I watched, at the safe distance of Wisconsin. We’d just sent our daughter off on the school bus and now wanted her back home. I called my brother in Pittsburgh in a panic. The news had said a plane had crashed in southern Pennsylvania somewhere. It seemed the the possibilities of horror were endless that day. And yet. I awoke yesterday fretting over work. My mourning routine was harried and frantic. I didn’t even know what day it was. I glanced a paper headline on the way to work and realized that I’d overslept a tragedy. Some scars never heal. Those wounds cut by religion are the deepest. So we find ourselves on the nexus of a tragedy, a birthday, and a new year. How we respond is entirely up to us.

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Devil’s Food

One figure among the standard repertoire of Halloween characters has never appeared on my list of favorite monsters. I suppose it may be because as a child I fervently believed there was a devil that he never made my A-list. Satan was real, according to my church, in some almost biological, corporeal form. Even as a youngster I knew vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein’s monster, and the rest, really didn’t exist (even after I hid under my covers all night once, after putting my head down on a bat that had flown into my bedroom). The devil was, however, biblical. And I never felt tempted to dress up with red horns and pointy tail, carrying a plastic pitchfork. Halloween was always among my favorite holidays, but it was for pretend monsters and ghosts (which might perhaps be real, but which were not diabolical, according to my childhood economy of the spiritual world). The consequences of devil imitation seemed eternal, and even today, in the rational light of the twenty-first century, I can still be given pause even though I know the concept is a Zoroastrian one that morphed into early Christianity’s need for a kind of anti-Christ.

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There are many who still believe in a real devil. Some branches of Christianity (and Islam) teach that a literal devil lurks about in our world. In western culture he is a figure instantly recognizable, although there are differences of opinion in his anti-iconography. Last weekend I visited a fine little restaurant in a New Jersey town that has a reputation for being haunted (the town, not the restaurant). It was a seat-yourself day and the table my wife and I ended up selecting had shellacked cards on top as part of the decoration. There in front of me was the devil. I pondered this. The cards, all captioned in Spanish, had mundane subjects: an umbrella, a musician, plants, a spider (okay, so that last one’s a little scary too), but only one supernatural figure. Perhaps the entire deck, had I seen it, might have had more. No doubt, for a world that postulates a good God, a devil covers, well, a host of evils.

The word “devil” is somewhat loosely applied these days. New Jersey has its own cryptid called the Jersey Devil, which has led to iconic names for sports teams and perhaps a public official or two. But even in the aftermath of 9/11 there were those who seriously postulated seeing the face of the devil in the tumbling debris of the twin towers. For a character of the religious imagination, the devil has managed to impress deeply on the human psyche. I know in my rational mind that I should simply dismiss all of this and get on with the business of enjoying the monsters that will show up at my door later this week. Nevertheless, when the waiter comes out with our food, I look down at the table and decide to pass on the hot sauce for today, just in case.

Disarmament

Maybe it’s just where I cast my attention, but debates over belief or unbelief seem to be everywhere these days. The word “militant” is used to describe belief (or lack of belief) systems with a worrying stridency. We want to prove what we believe, with violence, if necessary. So in anticipation of 9/11 Nick Cohen wrote a piece in the Guardian entitled “The phantom menace of militant atheism“. He points out, rightly enough, that you seldom hear of militant atheists being suspected of acts of terrorism. When a bomb goes off, we look for the religion behind it. For each pyromanic a religion can boast, it has a larger number of pacifists, in most cases. As Cohen points out, atheists aren’t blameless—Stalin and Mao remind us of that—but in today’s world of free agent religious ordinance missionaries we seldom, if ever, hear that the atheists have been plotting and planting explosives. In that Cohen is surely right. Humanists (to generalize) tend to hold humanity up, not blow it up.

By Creator:Tadeusz Cyprian (cyfrowe.mnw.art.pl) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Creator:Tadeusz Cyprian (cyfrowe.mnw.art.pl) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There is, however, a strange disconnect that Cohen, and countless others, point(s) out—atheists (and I would broaden this to humanists) are considered immoral. As if the concept of deity were somehow a mark of moral maturity. Of as if a specific belief system were the default for humanity and the rejection of it somehow a willful attempt at evil. Humanists, however, have been around for a long time. We tend to overlook that fact because they weren’t busy plotting to destroy others. Being raised in a religious environment, I didn’t even realize that long before I was born quiet, ethical, good people had come to think that religion was a delusion. Sure, some humanists have weird peccadilloes, but as the headlines remind us, so do the religious. The problem comes in when militants are the measuring rod. “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again,” a pacifist once said.

At the root of all this blustering is the unrelenting urge to convert. Those who are truly convinced they’ve found the right way—believing or un—want others to see it their way. Problem is, others want the same thing, the other way around. Apart from Cohen’s observations, I would note that we never hear of tolerant believers or unbelievers attacking anyone. Physically or verbally. The mantra of live and let live applies up to the point that a belief system mandates harm and then the old contradictions begin to resurrect themselves. Some belief systems are, by dint of their very premises, immoral. The majority, however, are just fine. If the zeal for conversion can be kept under control. I can envision a world where evangelical atheists could exist side-by-side with those who believe and don’t believe at the same time. And they might even meet together peacefully if only we would leave the militancy at home.

Working Dead

AmericanZombieGothicPerhaps being born into and reared in a working class environment naturally predisposes me to the populist variety of entertainments. Although this may be true, serious scholars have begun to pay attention to the subjects traditionally classified as “lowbrow,” and particularly zombies. I mention zombies not infrequently because they are monsters with religious origins (although not the only ones). Reading Kyle William Bishop’s American Zombie Gothic (and who could resist such a title?) resurrected all of these interests for a few happy days on the bus. Subtitled The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture, Bishop’s study goes back to the beginning with zombies and their religious origins. Since the concept of zombie required the blending of Catholicism with its root African indigenous religions, it seems natural that the concept would emerge in Voudon (voodoo) religions of the Caribbean. What Bishop makes clear, however, is that the zombie is a way of coping with slavery, since, as originally conceived, zombies represent the horrors of enslavement. In other words, they represent a social justice issue.

Dismissed as puerile and unsophisticated, zombies had a difficult time catching on in American culture. Once they caught on, however, they didn’t let go. (They are zombies, after all.) As Bishop shows, this appeal has many bases. George Romero’s zombies were always social critique. Exploiting their shock value made a point, but other filmmakers soon followed, enamored of the potential violence, gore, and exploitation the zombies offered. Then, following 9/11, zombie movies proliferated, demonstrating that even the undead might perform some kind of catharsis. As Bishop notes, zombies were primarily a movie phenomenon, slow to catch on in literature.

Having read a few zombie novels in the last few months, I have pondered this last point deeply. What is believable, momentarily, on the big screen is rendered laughable with the ponderation of reading. When your brain has time to process what slick visual editing denies, it is clear that decaying corpses would have a pretty tough time getting around—even living bodies have trouble with it from time to time. Zombies, after all, are not really ever literal. They are signs, or even prophets. They point to a reality beyond themselves. Zombies, in reality, represent enslavement—whether literal or figurative—that holds us back from our true potential. No wonder they’ve become such fixtures in a world where opportunity has become effaced and terror can breach even secure borders. They may be lowbrow, but having lived the working class life, I have always had profound respect for the walking dead.

World War 1.2

75 years ago today Orson Welles presented a radio drama version of The War of the Worlds. Perhaps it was the looming fear of the Second World War in a society that hadn’t yet overcome the trauma of the First, or perhaps too few people had read H. G. Wells’ novel, but the result was surprisingly catastrophic. Panic arose as listeners supposed that the invasion was real—the broadcast, although announced as a radio drama, followed a news bulletin format that overrode the rational faculties of many. This episode would influence government decisions about what to reveal to the public for years. And, naturally, it all began in New Jersey. Unlike the novel, the radio broadcast set the invasion, initially, in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. This tiny town is difficult to locate even today, falling as it does between the busy north-south roadways that run through the central part of the state.

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The Hindenburg disaster had taken place the previous year in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Welles, impressed by the radio coverage of that celestial fear, used those broadcasts as models for his play. A few weeks ago I ventured to Grover’s Mill to let my imagination roam free for a while. A great deal of history may have been determined by that broadcast and the public reaction. We are ready to believe that danger lurks above. The First World War began to make early use of the airplane as a weapon. The sky, previously, had been obtainable only with the slowly moving balloon. Only eleven years earlier Charles Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic by plane for the first time. The Second World War would see air combat as a major component of victory, also for the first time. My mother grew up in New Jersey, watching planes searching for German U-boats off the shore. The skies were not so friendly then.

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As I stood in Grover’s Mill, I recollected an unpublished book I once wrote about the weather in the book of Psalms. The thesis, somewhat loosely, suggested that for the average person the sky reflects the mood of the divine. Dramatic clouds still look angry, even when God is removed from the equation. The Reagan era gave us all new things to fear raining down on us from the skies. September 11, 2001, brought the skies crashing to the earth again. Invasion from above is an apt way to add a chill to Halloween, for it takes the prerogative of the deity and makes it either human or alien. At least most people who believe in God think he’s on their side. When the Wright brothers took their heavier-than-air craft briefly to the skies in 1903, The War of the Worlds had only been on the market for five years. The coming decades would drive God from the skies and we would come to learn that what falls from above would no longer have our best interests at heart.

No Cult

MakingAmericanReligiousFringeThe image of hundreds of lifeless bodies in the jungles of Guyana foregrounded by a metal tub of poisoned Flavor Aid is a difficult one to forget. If it were not for the media, however, most of us never would have heard of Jonestown. The term “cult” was applied to Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, just as the word was increasingly becoming a pejorative term for those with “other” beliefs. Sean McCloud’s Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955—1993, is a probing study into what makes a religion “mainstream,” versus a “cult.” (I know, too many “scare quotes.”) McCloud considers the role that journalists, as reporting in major news magazines, have had on determining American views of what is normative religion. If, that is, normative religion can be posited at all. It is quite clear, upon reflection, that any religion has some odd beliefs: you can’t wear this or eat that, you have to be at this place on this day, you must shave your head, etc., etc. The question McCloud explores is why some end up being called cults and others do not.

Scholars of religion have abandoned the term cult, for the most part, because of its arbitrariness. The defining markers of “cults” are unclear, and one religion influences another so that a continuum forms from Moses to Moonies. That’s not to say religions are all the same, but it is to say they are not so different either. The declaration of a religion as a cult, if based on belief systems, is tenuous. All religions make claims impossible to verify. Some, very traditional, are also very small in membership. Religions have been fabricated from antiquity to present, and even as I write this new religions are likely being conceived somewhere. McCloud points out that the popular media gave us the distinction between “mainstream” and “cult.” That distinction itself may be more telling than the differences between various groups of believers. It is the language of exclusion—true religions versus false religions. And any more than one religion, if considered seriously, is problematic.

Religions, old and new, large and small, make truth claims. These claims cannot be tested this side of eternity, so they must be taken by faith. The minds of many will be turned toward extreme actions motivated by idiosyncratic understandings of religion today. McCloud shows us that fringe is an integral part of the fabric—religion is woven from the experience of people through the millennia of our existence. And yet we still have no consensus. We have enough experience, however, to know that when one religion unravels another will be woven from the dangling threads. Some will be misguided, although all will claim to have the truth. Until that ultimate truth is definitively known, the best policy seems to be avoiding the temptation to call those of a different faith a “cult,” when “religion” does just as nicely.

Persistent Idealism

Few spans of human life are so idealistic as our college years. There we meet many people from beyond our hometown, and we learn the treasures of diversity and different ways of doing things. Ideas mix and blend, and with professors who’ve learned so much telling us all the places we can go, the possibilities seem endless. I find the idealism of college kids refreshing. That’s one reason, I suppose, that I enjoyed teaching them so much. At work you’re far more often told why things won’t work and how they can’t be done. And I find myself thinking back to college and wondering when people lost their sense of vision. When did idealism die?

Yesterday I spent on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. Between appointments I was crossing a quad area and noticed a bunch of blue and white balloons. We’re all still kids inside when we see balloons. I stopped to look. Then I noticed, across the street (in which sat a very obvious police car) a small group of students waving a Palestinian flag. Several police, frankly looking bored, stood between the two peaceful groups.

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Looking back to the balloons, there were a series of tents set up and a sign read “Israel Block Party.” Obviously this had been a carefully planned event, and we all know the heinous story of the constant persecution of the Jews throughout much of “civilized” history. The simple table across the street bore the sign “Free Palestine.” Less than ten students stood around, handing out literature, peaceful, yet literally flying their flag. Yes, the Palestinians have also been oppressed for much of their history. If only adults could live so peacefully as these students. My heart went out to them.

The issue of Israel and Palestine is one of the deepest scars in our collective human psyche. Indirectly, that conflict is responsible for many tragic terrorist acts, including the attacks of 9/11. And it is so frustrating because both sides (and there are actually more than two) are victims. We like our good guys in white and our bad guys in black. I’m still an idealist, after all. Yet in Israel/Palestine we have two historically oppressed groups vying for the very same land. And in the middle of this maelstrom, the Bible. The very book that can be read as an eternal promise by God that the people of Israel should own this land. By 1947, however, we’d stopped relying on God and began relying on guns. And atomic bombs. And life has never been the same since.

Images of the wall going up between Israelis and Palestinians just after the wall went down in Berlin reminded me of Bush’s proposed wall between Texas and Mexico. Here in Texas just about everyone in the lower paying jobs I’ve met is hispanic. And friendly. Grateful in a way that many of us wouldn’t emulate in such low stations. We are all people. We all experience the same feelings, needs, and desires. Why not tear down the walls and let us look at one another? Take a good, long look. And my idealistic self says, if we face another human being with love everything will be all right.

Avenge This

Recently rewatching The Avengers I noticed a subtext that had escaped me the first couple of times I saw it. When Loki explains to his victims why he is spreading his chaos, he uses a concept that many of us have been spoon-fed since 9/11—that freedom is not free. When he is asked from what he is setting humans free he replies, “Freedom.” He further explains that people really don’t want freedom, but they want to be led. This sounded so much like Bush administration rhetoric that I was put on alert for the remainder of the movie. Indeed, in the climatic scene much of Midtown is attacked, and who launches the nuclear device at Manhattan? The shadowy government figures who wish to remain anonymous. “Freedom is not free,” they seem to say, “support your government without question.” The scene of police and firefighters herding frightened citizens out of harm’s way looked an awful lot like footage from near ground zero.

Comic books, I have often reflected, are already story-boarded and some make excellent movies. Some are funny and some are serious. As a child I had only a handful of comics, but they were like movies for kids with modest means. Like an adult going back to the old Warner Brothers cartoons, you see many things that escaped you as a child. Comics may not be high literature, but comic book movies, at their best, are not far from it. The X-Men movies likewise introduce themes that rivet adult attention: prejudice, discrimination, the ambivalence of evil. The stories are didactic as well as entertaining. In the case of The Avengers, the characters, while overblown, all have their own agendas but government has only one: compliance.

Sometimes I read about the early days of the American experiment and wonder what went wrong. Yes, there are certainly times and issues that demand strong centralized government for survival, but when did those who castigate such strong control decide that they should take over? Who gains here? It certainly doesn’t seem to be the average citizen. Looking over the landscape after the last laissez-faire government, the only one who ended up hands-off were the very wealthy. Left with no social responsibility, they reign, resisting any taxation so that the burden of the increase trickles down to those who, in the words of Loki, really don’t want freedom. That’s perhaps the only thing we have in common here; no matter how long ago our ancestors arrived, they were searching for freedom. Or so they believed. Like a comic book, it has become mere fantasy for most, while Richie Rich happily continues on his gilded, but vapid way.

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Night of the Johnstown Flood

Floods always have a whiff of old Noah about them. I first heard of the Johnstown flood from a minister who has had a profound impact on my life. He had been in Johnstown for the 1977 flood, and that led me to learn a little bit about America’s first great natural disaster. I decided to follow up David R. Montgomery’s flood book by David McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood. Like most stories of human tragedy, this devastating flood combined elements of human culpability with nature’s own inscrutable workings. The 1889 flood came during an unusually heavy rainstorm. Some years before, an exclusive millionaire’s club had repaired an artificial dam rebuilt for the recreation of the wealthy high above the town. Records show the repairs to have been lackluster—at one point they purchased hay to act as cheap fill. Although the members knew of the danger they did nothing to avert the deadly potential a breech in the dam would inevitably cause. When the dam burst during the storm, over 2200 people died.

Wrenching, like most natural disaster accounts are, the story of human misery raises questions of theodicy and basic humanity. Members of the club were those who ran Pittsburgh in the days before their steel mills fell silent. Apart from a few like Andrew Carnegie, who gave generously to those in dire need after the tragedy, most of club members gave nothing to the relief effort for what their negligence helped cause. They hadn’t even hired an engineer to consult about their dam project when they decided to rebuild it. Lawsuits filed failed to touch them; the suffering of thousands failed to move them. Fast forward just over a century—as the towers of the wealthy came down the working class tried to save as many as they could, some at the cost of their own lives. We all know who are regarded as the heroes.

“Was it not the likes of them [club members] that were bringing in the [foreign workers], buying legislatures, cutting wages, and getting a great deal richer than was right or good for any mortal man in a free, democratic country?” McCullough’s words, explaining the sense of those who’d lost everything to the idle dalliances of the leisured class, still ring true in the world of one percenters. Often it takes a tragedy to bring society’s inequalities into focus. As a nation we’ve gone on to have even more costly disasters since May 31, 1889, but the instability built by corporate greed has kept pace, indeed, perhaps even surpassed what it was back then. “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” or so I have it on good authority.

Private Property

I’m receiving a government-sponsored massage at Newark’s ironically named “Liberty Airport.” Like most federal freebies, this massage leaves me wanting. Now, I’ve had many pat-downs to protect me from people like myself, and each time I find myself feeling like so much meat for politicians’ pork-bellies in this culture of fear. I am afraid. It isn’t terrorists who worry me, but my own elected (sometimes) guardians. When being a citizen is considered the same thing as an enemy of the state, there is a problem. In the line next to me is an infant-in-arms being given a pat-down by a stranger. Yes, ma’am, my tax dollars help pay for that. Please, don’t bother to thank me. It will be only the first of many.

The last time I flew was from London to New York. In Heathrow US citizens aren’t sent through the humility of full-body scanners. Only a nation afraid of its own does that. I often ponder what this means. Frequently I hear, “these colors don’t run.” I wonder if it’s because they’re too busy sticking their hands down their own citizens’ pants. Home of the brave? Only if bravery means giving in to the intimidations of terrorists. I’ve fallen off a bicycle a time or two. One time it was with pretty messy results. I’ve even actually fallen off a cantering horse. (That may explain a thing or two.) As a child I was always told that you need to get right back on and try again. After 9/11, however, our country showed its naked fear in the overregulation of air security while continuing deregulation of the airlines. Money does not guarantee a secure future.

If our government has a desire to see its citizens naked, what more need they do? They know every penny we earn or exchange, taking a cut each time, and the only way to get on a plane without hassle is to let them view everything. It’s not good for my Constitution. Our Constitution. Moral outrage, however, is apparently a thing of the past. Full-body scanners may be science, but I still believe in the humanities. And when a babe in arms is considered a threat to national security, I have to wonder what we’re truly afraid of. And next time do you think you could use a little more pressure on my neck? I feel like I’m coming down with a wicked headache.

Read the sign

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” so the books of Psalms and Proverbs agree. It must be true. Religion and fear walk happily along hand-in-hand. Some have suggested that religion began as a human response to fear. So this week I felt a little conflicted as I read Daniel Gardner’s The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain. The book had been recommended to me by one of my brothers. As a child fear defined me—it seemed that in a world where God was meant to be feared (for I was a literalist) that fear was the basic operating system for life itself. Gardner’s book is a fascinating exposé of the culture of fear. Gardner doesn’t really suggest that fear should be eliminated, but he does show how many of those in power manipulate fear into a faulty perception of risk management, for their own advantage. Beginning with 9/11 he demonstrates how the irrational responses of people to the tragedy led to even more deaths that quickly became buried in the white noise of everyday society. Comparing Bush’s response to FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Gardner demonstrates that the United States emerged from the depression and Second World War weary but confident and strong. After Bush’s two terms, the country is cowering and weaker. Why? The Bush administration heavily mongered fear.

Funnily enough, the release from fear comes from two main sources: statistics and psychology. Statistics reveal the true odds of common fears—these can be inflated so as to create an atmosphere of threat. People, as herd animals, will gladly give more power to the alpha male when serious treat is perceived (don’t kid yourself, politicians have long known this). Psychology enters the scenario because people think with both reason and emotion. Our immediate, visceral response (the “gut reaction”) is instantaneous and powerful, developed from millennia of evolution. It is, however, irrational. Reasoned responses, often better for us, take longer and people do not like to force themselves to think hard. We have a whole educational system to prove that. Faced with hard thinking or quick solving, which do you prefer? Be honest now!

Ultimately The Science of Fear is an optimistic book. Being made aware of the problem is half the struggle. Garden-variety fear is fine. Systemic fear paralyzes. Religion is often defined as one of the building blocks of culture. Instead of offering release from fear, religions frequently add their own ingredients for recipes of even greater fear. The concept of Hell is a great example: think of the worse thing you possibly can. Multiply it by several orders of magnitude. Repeat. And repeat. You’re still not even close to how bad Hell is. There’s your motivation right there. Place that religion in the midst of a society rich with natural resources and led by schemers who know that xenophobia increases power, and voila! Paradise on earth for some, a life of fear for the rest. Manipulation characterizes both the evolution of religions and societies. Gardner doesn’t directly address the religious side, but that’s the beauty of reason: he doesn’t have to. The cycle can be broken; think of Mark Twain’s words I’ve selected as a title. Think hard.

Twin Towers

The newly opened World Trade Center memorial in Manhattan is truly a solemn place. Staring into the seemingly endless holes into which the water forever pours, one feels the emptiness of loss like a thousand graveyards. Like watching the Titanic sink from a lifeboat. In the chilly late October morning hundreds were huddled about, looking at those reflecting pools with an undefined sadness in their eyes and a sense of frustration in their souls. So much loss. And for what? The American way of life has its towering foibles as well as its nobility. The protesters of Occupy Wall Street are mere blocks away in Zuccotti Park, reminding the nation that we have forgotten the principles of human decency even while we honor the fallen dead. It seems an appropriate epitaph for All Hallows Eve—a peaceful park where hundreds died just blocks from where hundreds camp in the cold. It is not too late to stop this ship from striking the iceberg.

Ground Zero

The symbol of peace, given to us by the Bible, is the olive branch. Actually the olive branch comes from the story of the flood; it is less a sign of peace than it is a sign that some of us have survived the wrath of God. Read into that what you will. The olive branch only comes after all but eight people pay the ultimate sacrifice. It is peace on the terms of a vengeful deity. Near the center of the memorial, one tree stands out. It is not an olive tree. After the devastating attacks of 9/11, workers found a living Calleri pear tree among the rubble. The scorched and battered plant was taken to a nursery where it recovered. It stands now in the midst of the peaceful reflecting pools, bearing not olives, but pears. The tree was saved by human effort, a symbol of peace, survival, and endurance.

A different kind of tower

I spoke with one of the protestors in Occupy Wall Street, and gave him encouragement. I suffered unemployment for long years when the weight of the flood crushed me to my own ocean floor. Loss and more loss. I was moved to tears in the World Trade Center memorial. The decision not to build again on the site where the Twin Towers stood is a symbolic statement to those who believe that evil triumphs in the end. The god of those who destroy others in the name of their faith is the god who destroys innocent and guilty alike in worldwide floods. This is a god who offers people with no knowledge tempting fruit that they are not permitted to eat. Nowhere in the Bible does it state the species of the tree of knowledge. Is there anyone left innocent enough to tell? Artists like to use an apple, an idea based on the similarity between the Latin words for evil and apple. I believe that loss of innocence was the price of maturity, and I believe the tree of knowledge might just have been a Calleri pear.

Peace